Country Scores

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 6
Status: Not Free
Population: 19,900,000
Capital: Damascus


2008 Key Developments: In early 2008, Syria completed a major crackdown on dissident and opposition leaders that had begun in late 2007. The country was rattled by an unusual series of political assassinations and explosions targeting the regime. Freedoms of expression, association, and assembly remained tightly restricted throughout the year, and the government continued to hold an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners. On the international front, Syria established formal relations with Lebanon in October.

Political Rights: Syria is not an electoral democracy. The president is nominated by the ruling Baath Party and approved by popular referendum. In practice, these referendums are orchestrated by the regime, as are elections for the 250-seat, unicameral People's Council, whose members serve four-year terms and hold little independent legislative power. Almost all power rests in the executive branch. The only legal political parties are the Baath Party and its several small coalition partners in the ruling National Progressive Front. Corruption is widespread, and bribery is often necessary to navigate the bureaucracy. Equality of opportunity has been compromised by this rampant graft.

Civil Liberties: Freedom of expression is heavily restricted. It is illegal to publish material that harms national unity, tarnishes the image of the state, or threatens the "goals of the revolution." Most broadcast media are state owned, and private print outlets are required to submit all material to government censors. Journalists in Syria are subject to harassment and intimidation in the form of short jail terms, travel bans, and confiscations of their notes. Syrians access the internet only through state-run servers, which block more than 160 sites. Although the constitution requires that the president be a Muslim, there is no state religion in Syria, and freedom of worship is generally respected. Academic freedom is heavily restricted. Public demonstrations are illegal without official permission, which is typically granted only to pro-government groups. All nongovernmental organizations must register with the government, which generally denies registration to reformist or human rights groups. Leaders of unlicensed human rights groups have frequently been jailed for publicizing state abuses. The state of emergency in force since 1963 gives the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge. Many of the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners in Syria have never been tried. The security agencies, which operate independently of the judiciary, routinely extract confessions by torturing suspects and detaining their family members. The Kurdish minority faces severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression. The government provides women with equal access to education and appoints women to senior positions, but many discriminatory laws remain in force.

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