Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

The government of President Hafez al-Asad did not dismantle repressive laws and institutions, and gave no visible sign that the state was prepared to tolerate open criticism of its policies and practices by granting legal status to now-banned opposition political parties and human rights groups. The state of emergency, imposed in 1963, remained in effect, suspending constitutional rights and granting broad powers of detention without charge to security services. There was evidence of prolonged incommunicado detention of individuals subjected to arbitrary arrest. Trials of members of the political opposition continued before the security court, and lengthy sentences were handed down. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly existed only as theoretical rights in the Syrian constitution. As in past years, criticism of President Hafez al-Asad and the powerful security apparatus was strictly off-limits.

Fourteen activists from the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF) – the independent group organized in 1989 by lawyers, physicians, engineers, journalists, writers, and students who were forced to work clandestinely inside the country – were imprisoned for most of 1994. Despite the release of four of them during the year, eleven were still behind bars as of early November, ten of them serving sentences ranging from five to ten years. The intimidating effect of the deliberate crippling of CDF – which began with a wave of arrests in late 1991 – hampered in-depth monitoring of the human rights situation and, for the third consecutive year, complicated the collection and flow of information. "Human rights groups fail to understand that we must preserve the stability of the country," Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Nasir Qaddour told Human Rights Watch/Middle East in Damascus in October, "and in doing so, we have to limit rights." He justified the continuing state of emergency with these words: "We are in a state of war. We have Iraq to the east and Israel to the south, occupying the Golan [Heights]."

Prolonged incommunicado detention, a practice that facilitates torture, continued in 1994. Early in the year, it became known that thirty-four-year-old Lebanese citizen Dani Mansourati died in detention from torture and ill-treatment at the Damascus headquarters of Air Force Intelligence, which is known for its covert operations in foreign countries. He had been held incommunicado since his arrest in May 1992 in Damascus by Military Intelligence, the security force that plays an important role in Lebanon.

Eleven relatives and friends of the late General Salah Jadid – the Ba'ath Party strongman arrested after the 1970 coup who remained in detention without charge until his death in August 1993 – were held in incommunicado detention until their release on July 3. Six of the relatives were students ranging in age from seventeen to thirty-one years old, and another was a thirty-year-old university lecturer. They and four friends of the family, including a dentist, a businessman, an engineer, and a retired army officer, had all been arrested between August 23 and August 29, 1993, following Jadid's death, and taken to an unknown location. On June 20, the Syrian Embassy in London replied to Amnesty International appeals about the case. "[N]o one was arrested or detained because of being a relative or friend of the late Salah Jadid," the Embassy wrote. "Furthermore, the Syrian Arab Republic laws and regulations do not give authority to anyone to arrest or detain any citizen because of his or her blood relation, colour, opinion, religion, or language." The government did not deny that the individuals were in official custody, but it provided no information about why they were detained or where they were being held incommunicado.

In September, the Supreme State Security Court, whose decisions cannot be appealed to a higher tribunal, handed down judgments in the ongoing trials of suspected members or supporters of banned political parties. CDF reported that fifty-six members of the Party for Communist Action and the Communist Party/Political Bureau – another banned opposition group – were sentenced to prison terms of up to fifteen years. The harsh sentences send a strong message that the government remains firm in its policy of denying freedom of association to opposition political groups. Syrian officials told Human Rights Watch/Middle East in October that 275 defendants had been tried before the security court since 1992.

On the positive side, there were releases in 1994 of scores of political prisoners and four CDF activists. Five long-term prisoners were released in 1994: Ahmad Swaidani, Mustafa Rustom, Haditha Murad in February, and Adel Nouaisseh and Dhafi Jouma'ni later in the year. All five had been held without charge or trial: Swaidani since 1969, and the others since the early 1970s. These releases reduced the number of Syria's longest-serving political prisoners to seven. Muhammed 'Id Ashshawi, Fawzi Rida, and Abdel Hamid Muqdad have been detained without charge for over two decades. Khalil Brayez, Mahmud Fayyadh, Jalal el-Din Mirhij, and Mustafa Fallah – who were tried and sentenced in 1971 to fifteen-year prison terms – remained detained despite the expiry of their sentences. Such uninterrupted detention for an extraordinarily long period, and the advanced age of these prisoners, raise serious humanitarian concerns; human rights groups expressed concern during the year about the poor health of Muhammed 'Id Ashshawi, Fawzi Rida, and Mahmud Fayyadh. After almost a quarter of a century, the continued detention of these men appears to be wholly arbitrary and they should be released.

Beginning at the end of April, over eighty detainees were freed, including Ahmad Hasso, a CDF activist who had been imprisoned since early 1992. An additional twenty prisoners were released in September and October, CDF announced on October 24. Three of them were CDF members Jihad Khazem, Ibrahim Habib, and Najib Ata Layqa, all of whom had been detained since early 1992. Others included Adel Nouaisseh, a member of the ruling Ba'ath Party's National Revolutionary Command Council held without charge since his arrest in 1972, and Nihad Nahhas, one of the founders of the banned Party for Communist Action (PCA). Jordanian Dhafi Jouma'ni, a member of the National Command detained since 1970, was released on October 30.

Steps were taken to lift long-standing restrictions on freedom of movement for members of Syria's small Jewish community in advance of the meeting in Geneva in January between President Clinton and President Asad. By late December 1993, authorities had reportedly issued 550 exit permissions to 900 Jews that had until then been unable to obtain these documents. Human Rights Watch/Middle East received information from sources in Syria that in early January about thirty permissions were being issued daily. At the end of February, Syria's deputy chief rabbi Yousef Jajati announced that all members of the community had received exit visas. Damascus-based Western diplomats told Human Rights Watch/Middle East in October that the issue of the Syrian Jews had been "resolved."

The Right To Monitor

The state does not permit its citizens the right to carry out human rights monitoring and reporting. The continued imprisonment of eleven CDF activists serves as a powerful reminder that rights advocacy will be dealt with harshly by authorities. Ten of the CDF members were convicted by the state security court in 1992 in proceedings that fell short of international fair-trial standards. Their human rights work led them to be charged under the emergency law with membership in an illegal organization (CDF), the dissemination of false information, and undermining the state by distributing leaflets critical of the government. In October, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Nasir Qaddur told Human Rights Watch/Middle East that the CDF activists were "communists calling for the violent overthrow of the state." Their names and prison sentences are: writer Nizar Nayouf (ten years); lawyer Aktham Nouaisseh, the CDF spokesperson in Syria (nine years); jurist Afif Mizher and university lecturer Muhammed Ali Habib (nine years); Bassam al-Shaykh (eight years); and Thabet Murad, Jadi' Nawfal, Ya'qub Musa, Hassan Ali and Hussam Salama (all five years). Several times during the year, CDF called attention to the poor health of Aktham Nouaisseh, who suffers from glaucoma, glomerulonephritis, and partial paralysis due to beating during interrogation following his arrest in December 1991. Nouaisseh was moved from Sednaya prison on August 18 to a hospital, where he remained until August 21. During this time, according to CDF, the lawyer did not receive medical treatment for the glaucoma.

The state's harsh measures against locally-based rights advocates contrasted with government officials' receptivity during the year to international human rights organizations. In October, a delegation from Amnesty International conducted a mission, and senior officials, including Minister of Interior Muhammed Harba, Minister of Justice Abdallah Talba, and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Nasir Qadur, met with a Human Rights Watch/Middle East representative in Damascus. The organization urged the government to match its dialogue with international human rights organizations with a radical overturning of its restrictions on domestic organizations, and to end the persecution of domestic nongovernmental groups, notably CDF. We said that imprisoned human rights monitors should be freed, and independent rights organization should, in accordance with Syrian law, be granted legal status. Such groups should be permitted to collect and disseminate information freely, and carry out other peaceful activities – including networking with other regional and international nongovernmental organizations – without the fear of state retaliation against members and supporters.

U.S. Policy

The Clinton administration's policy issues with Syria included human rights, although efforts to broker a peace agreement with Israel clearly remained the overriding goal. The Syrian government signalled a desire for an improved political and economic relationship with the U.S., and continuous contact during the year between senior Clinton administration officials and their Syrian counterparts – to facilitate progress on the Israel-Syria track – provided numerous opportunities to pursue this goal.

Improvement of Syria's human rights record was one of the three issues identified by the U.S. as key to an improved bilateral relationship. The U.S. also said it looked for signs that the Asad government was curbing the drug trade that originates in the Syrian-controlled Beka' Valley of Lebanon, and clamping down on Hizballa, the militia armed by Iran that has indiscriminately shelled settlements in northern Israel from positions in southern Lebanon, and other groups implicated in international terrorism. The Clinton administration has identified open political systems and greater respect for human rights and the rule of law as among its priorities in the region. But if the ongoing U.S.-Syria dialogue included in-depth discussion of these issues, nudging from the American side was applied privately. Human Rights Watch/Middle East is aware of no public statement by the Clinton administration officials during the year that called the Syrian government to task for specific abuses such as arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture, and long-term imprisonment of human rights monitors.

President Clinton met with President Asad twice during 1994 – in Geneva in January, and in Damascus in October. Both occasions presented the U.S. with a major opportunity to put forth concerns about Syria's human rights record, but the subject was not broached publicly.

The only references to human rights at the January 16 meeting in Geneva were couched in extremely vague language. At the joint press conference following the meeting, President Asad noted that over the last year he and President Clinton had had "a number of exchanges and telephone communications." President Clinton confirmed this close contact, stating that "from the outset of our administration, I have engaged President Asad in a regular correspondence by telephone and letter." At the meeting that day, President Clinton said that they discussed "the state of relations between the U.S. and Syria" and "agreed on the desirability of improving them. Accordingly, we've instructed the secretary of state and the Syrian foreign minister to establish a mechanism to address these issues in detail and openly." President Clinton explained in generalities one of the stumbling blocks to closer relations, the Asad government's harboring of groups that carry out cross-border political violence: "Well, as we have made clear, we have had differences over the years with Syria over a number of issues, including our differences over questions relating to certain groups – the PKK [the Workers' Party of Kurdistan that carries out guerrilla activity in southeast Turkey], the Hezbollah, the Jabril group and others – other issues. We talked about these differences for about an hour today without any view toward trying to resolve them." National Security Advisor Anthony Lake returned to this issue in a speech about U.S. policy toward Syria at the Washington Institute on May 17. He articulated the concern of the Clinton administration that Syria's "alliance with Iran and its support for rejectionist groups have given the forces of extremism a vital base in the Middle East." Following the bombing of a commuter bus in Tel Aviv on October 19, the State Department said that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Ross was instructed to pressure Syrian officials – with whom he met on October 19 in Damascus – to restrict the activities of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that claimed responsibility for the attack.

President Clinton visited Damascus on October 27 as part of a six-state Middle East tour and conferred with President Asad for over three hours. He made clear, in his public remarks that day, that the purpose of the meeting was "to add new energy" to U.S. efforts to broker a comprehensive peace between Israel and Syria. As in January, Syria's human rights performance was not on the agenda, and President Clinton was criticized for visiting a state that remained on the U.S. list of countries that sponsor international terrorism. It was reported by The New York Times on October 28 that President Clinton had not raised the issue. In the press conference following the meeting, President Asad denied that Syria supported terrorism, and stated: "We did not discuss terrorism as a separate title.... [T]his was not one of the topics on the agenda in my discussion with President Clinton, and we are discussing what is more important, and our concern and focus was on the peace process."

When it was announced on October 21 that President Clinton's Middle East tour would include Syria, senior administration officials told The New York Times that they hoped that President Asad would issue a strong public statement against terrorism while President Clinton was in Damascus. At a press conference in Jerusalem on October 27, President Clinton publicly reproached the Syrian leader for not doing so: "I regret that President Asad did not take the opportunity to say in public what he said to me in private about his deep regret about the loss of innocent lives and particularly the bus bombing [in Tel Aviv]."

The Clinton administration in 1994 never raised publicly the issue of Syria's continuing detention of the CDF human rights monitors. Early in the year, State Department Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Mark R. Parris informed Human Rights Watch in a letter that the case of the CDF monitors has been "followed closely" and that the U.S. ambassador in Damascus "has raised their case with the Syrians and made clear our views." Referring to the Geneva meeting, he added that "human rights issues were indeed raised," although "the focus was on the broad issues rather than individual cases."

Following a meeting with President Asad in Damascus on May 1, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that he had received "some encouraging responses," The New York Times reported on May 2, to his request that a senior U.S. official be permitted to visit Syria to investigate human rights. But the State Department later confirmed to Human Rights Watch/Middle East that the expected mission by Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck had not been scheduled as of November 1.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Middle East

Human Rights Watch/Middle East worked during the year to press the Syrian government to remove obstacles to the scrutiny of its human rights performance by international and domestic monitors. We sought to obtain a commitment from the government to permit human rights fact-finding inside the country without fear of arrest. We also identified and utilized opportunities for publicizing the continued imprisonment of the CDF monitors, and appealed to the U.S. and other governments to press for their release.

The Clinton-Asad meeting in Geneva in January presented avenues for advocacy on the CDF case. In December, Human Rights Watch/Middle East wrote to President Clinton, recommending that he raise the issue of the imprisoned monitors with President Asad and press for their immediate, unconditional release. In advance of the meeting, we released this letter to the press, and wrote an opinion piece on the subject that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. We also organized fifteen U.S., Arab, and European nongovernmental organizations to press the issue of the CDF monitors with Clinton administration officials prior to the meeting. In February, we distributed the package used in the campaign to European Union ambassadors in Damascus, urging that the CDF case be raised in meetings with Syrian government representatives and that persistent diplomatic pressure be applied to effect the immediate and unconditional release of the rights activists. Following the campaign, four CDF monitors were released. Throughout the year, contact was maintained with officials at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to pursue the request by Human Rights Watch/Middle East – first made in November 1993 – for permission to conduct a fact-finding mission. The executive director of Human Rights Watch/Middle East traveled to Damascus in October to discuss directly with senior government officials the plan for a mission. They gave assurances that the government would facilitate the mission, including prison visits and observation of state security court trials. But as of November 18, we had not received word that the delegation would be permitted to carry out its planned November visit.

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