Human Rights Developments

Political life in Syria remained one-dimensional, dominated by the ruling Ba'th Party apparatus and a handful of smaller, pro-government political parties that comprised the National Progressive Front (NPF). Syria's quadrennial parliamentary elections took place on November 30, 1998, with 7,364 candidates competing for 250 seats. Interior minister Muhamed Harba announced on December 3 that 167 candidates affiliated with NPF parties won seats and the remaining eighty-three went to independents. On January 14, 1999, the new parliament approved unanimously the nomination for another seven-year term in office of President Hafez al-Asad, who has ruled the country since 1970. A national referendum followed on February 10 to endorse his presidency. According to the interior ministry, the overwhelming majority approved of another term, with only 219 of some 8.9 million voters casting ballots of "disapprove."

Peaceful opposition politics or human rights monitoring was not tolerated inside Syria, and punishment for either activity was severe. The country continued to lack a law under which any political party could apply for legal status, and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was punishable by the death penalty, pursuant to Law No. 49 of 1980. Infrequent calls for meaningful reform came only from organized Syrian political exiles. For example, after a secret meeting of its ruling council, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement in July urging the release of all political prisoners and "lifting the state of emergency, revoking martial law and the adoption of political pluralism." The statement also criticized "economic and social corruption," which it said "enlarged the circle of poverty and widened the gap [between various classes of] society."

Authorities still viewed human rights activists as criminals and subjected them to harsh punishment. Five associates of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (known by the acronym CDF) were serving eight to ten year prison terms imposed by the Supreme State Security Court in an unfair trial in 1992. They were the only human rights advocates in the Arab world serving such lengthy sentences for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression and association.

Authorities were unresponsive to requests for information about "disappearances" of Syrians, Lebanese and other foreign nationals, and stateless Palestinians believed detained in Syria. Families continued to contact international human rights organizations about "disappeared" relatives, some of them last seen ten years ago or longer. Lebanese activists abroad again pressed for the release of several hundred "disappeared" Lebanese who were abducted on Lebanese soil and were believed transferred to Syria. Exasperation with the Syrian government's silence about the "disappeared" was apparent in the comments of one Jordanian official. In an interview published in the daily al-Dustour (Amman) on November 7, 1998, then-information minister Nasir Judah criticized the lack of information about Jordanians imprisoned in Syria. "The number of Jordanian detainees in Syria is increasing and we expect some Syrian clarification. Where are they? What are the charges brought against them? Can their relatives visit them? How and where were they tried, and in which prisons are they now? And what are their prison terms?" He added: "If a Jordanian enters Syria and commits an offense, there are norms and diplomatic channels through which the offense can be communicated to us."

On July 12, President Asad issued Legislative Decree No. 3 of 1999, which granted a general amnesty for persons charged or convicted of a wide variety of offenses, ranging from misdemeanors to military desertion, foreign currency violations, hoarding or speculating in subsidized food, and other economic offenses. The state-owned daily Tishrin initially reported on July 13 that the amnesty would apply to tens of thousands of citizens. On July 14, the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat said it covered some 2,200 people imprisoned for "economic crimes" and that another 150,000 cases before the courts for "hoarding-related offenses" would be dropped. Syrian justice minister Hussein Hassoun told the press on July 19 that certain so-called economic offenses were anachronistic: "We think that the sentences imposed by these laws [on economic crimes] are severe and that the amnesty complements the economic opening under way." Syrian officials told Agence France-Presse on July 19 that "more than 200,000 cases" were included in the amnesty, and officials who requested anonymity added that about 250 political prisoners would be released. The decree reportedly also applied to cases that had been tried in absentia, and media reports noted that a committee had been organized to prepare lists of the amnesty's beneficiaries. In September, a report from the Gulf Center for Strategic Studies, published in Bahrain's daily Akhbar al-Khaleej, said that 300 political prisoners were released in the amnesty, most of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood. As of this writing, only a few unconfirmed names of released political prisoners were circulating.

As in past years, some political prisoners were not released after the completion of their lengthy prison sentences. Amnesty International publicized the case of Doha `Ashur al-Askari, who continued to be held in Adra prison after the expiration of her six-year term in February. `Ashur, who was prosecuted and sentenced in the Supreme State Security Court for alleged membership in an unauthorized political party, went on hunger strike in June and was released in July.

An undetermined number of Syrians who fled the country during the harsh repression of the 1980s continued to live abroad as political exiles under difficult circumstances. These men and women no longer had valid Syrian passports, placing them at risk of arrest or deportation. Exiles, and their wives and children, could not obtain passports at Syrian embassies if their names were recorded on black lists in Damascus. Entire families thus were left without documentation of Syrian nationality when their passports expired. Exiles also reported to Human Rights Watch that the names of children born to Syrian political exiles abroad could not be entered in Syria's civil status register, making it impossible for them to obtain passports and in effect depriving them of legal recognition of their Syrian nationality. The daughter of one exile, who left Syria with her mother and siblings when she was ten years old, said that her applications for a passport were repeatedly denied. Without a passport, she was unable to return to Syria to pursue advanced university studies and marry her Syrian fiancé. In another case, an exile reported that his son, who earned a medical degree in Jordan but lacked a passport, could not travel outside of Jordan for specialized medical studies. At a meeting in 1999 with nine Syrian women who were the wives or widows of political exiles, Human Rights Watch counted among them seventy-seven children without Syrian passports who were effectively stateless. The twenty-six-year-old daughter of one of the women said: "My father is dead. What is my crime? I have a right to my Syrian nationality and I want to go back to my country."

Inside Syria, the relatives of political exiles also faced restrictions on freedom of movement and in some cases were not permitted to leave the country. Syrians required an exit visa to travel abroad, and there were reports that those on black lists had their passports seized at the time they applied for these visas in Syria. Some exiles who approached Syrian embassies abroad were reportedly given permission to return but then were either arrested on entering the country or were not allowed to leave again. For example, Medhat Tayfour, who was born in Hama in 1954, left Syria in 1983, living first in Saudi Arabia and then Jordan, where he worked as a construction foreman for five years. His brother was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood living in exile. The Syrian embassy in Jordan reportedly gave Tayfour a laissez-passer travel document to enter Syria, in lieu of his passport, but when he left for Syria on May 22, 1998, he was arrested at the border. As of this writing, his whereabouts were unknown. His wife and five children, aged three to fifteen years old, remained in Jordan.

The state owned and strictly controlled newspapers and the audio-visual media, although there was movement to provide limited Internet access to some segments of Syrian society and to introduce cellular telephones. In June, the information ministry banned the pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi (London) from distribution in Syria. According to the London-based Center for Media Freedom, the ban was in reaction to articles in the newspaper that discussed bilateral contact between Syria and Israel to revive negotiations concerning a peace treaty that had been suspended in 1996.

On April 25, some thirty-five state institutions, including universities as well as ministries, were reportedly connected to the Internet. On July 15, the government daily al-Thawrah (Damascus) reported that the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE) "will start providing Internet services to private and public sector companies, as well as email, to individuals with legal status." The paper said that email service required "the subscriber to have professional status, like doctors, journalists, and lawyers." The article also suggested that the STE would closely monitor users: "STE will be the only service provider and will suspend any subscriber who encodes files sent outside the Syrian net." STE chairman Makram Obeid announced on February 11 that he was optimistic that mobile phones would be available to the public before the end of 1999.

Bilateral ties between Syria and neighboring Lebanon continued to be extremely close. Critics of the dominant Syrian role in Lebanese affairs, and the presence of Syrian intelligence operatives and tens of thousands of troops there, maintained that Lebanon was "occupied." Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam reportedly had been relieved of his responsibility for Lebanon and the "file" transferred to Col. Bashar Asad, the president's son and apparent successor. In an interview published in al-Kifah al-Arabi (Beirut) on February 4, Colonel Asad warned Lebanese against reactivating "confessional and sectarian tendencies," and said that Syria would not "endorse such a dangerous game." He also said that the "relationship between Lebanon and Syria is that of one people in two countries who are bound by historical and geographical links as well as a joint struggle. As such, we cannot reduce the relationship to a mere file."

To the consternation of many Lebanese, Syria set up some thirty-six voting booths throughout Lebanon so that Syrian residents of the country, and troops, could easily cast ballots in the February Syrian presidential referendum. The Daily Star (Beirut) noted that in many voting stations "guest books were distributed to Lebanese citizens to record statements supporting Hafez al-Asad." In advance of the vote, Lebanon's influential Maronite patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, said that the polling stations insulted Lebanon's sovereignty. "In other countries, foreigners vote at their embassies because they are considered to be the country's territory. We do insist on the importance of maintaining close relations with Syria, but we also require our country's sovereignty," the February 7 Daily Star quoted him as saying. According to press reports, the voting booths were guarded by personnel from Lebanon's Internal Security Forces and supervised by Syrian intelligence operatives in plainclothes. A February 10 dispatch from Reuters in Beirut described how "[a]t polling stations near the border, Syrian soldiers with machineguns forced voters into queues and then prompted them to dance and repeat pro-Asad slogans."

Defending Human Rights

The harsh repression in 1991-92 of a fledgling network of human rights activists inside the country continued to have a pernicious effect. There were no locally based organizations that openly monitored and reported on human rights conditions, and information about developments remained a scarce commodity. Syrian rights activists abroad continued to stress that Syrian authorities must recognize the right of citizens to form independent nongovernmental organizations and release those imprisoned for exercising peaceful freedom of association and expression.

Of the original group of ten CDF members who were sentenced to prison terms of five to ten years in 1992, five were still behind bars: Nizar Nayouf, Muhamed Ali Habib, Afif Muzhir, Bassam al-Shaykh, and Thabet Murad. Conditions were particularly harsh for Nayouf, who had been held in solitary confinement in Tadmor and Mezze military prisons since 1993. As reports circulated of his deteriorating physical and psychological health, including information that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease but refused medical treatment unless he renounced his political beliefs and acknowledged that he made "false declarations concerning the situation of human rights in Syria," international and regional human rights organizations campaigned for his release on humanitarian grounds.

In a letter to Human Rights Watch on December 10, 1998, Walid al-Moualem, Syria's ambassador to the U.S., denied that Nayouf had Hodgkin's disease. "Rather, he is suffering [from] hernia of nucleus pulposus [slipped disc]. The doctors treating him have concluded that he did not require surgery, treatment with medicines should be sufficient. His health condition has since improved," the ambassador wrote. He added that Nayouf and the other CDF activists convicted with him in 1992, had "deliberately fabricated lies against Syria and caused her harm, under the pretext of defending human rights." Subsequently, Human Rights Watch received credible information that authorities reportedly provided Nayouf with treatment for Hodgkin's disease in early 1999, following the international campaigning on his behalf, and that his condition improved. As of this writing, the most recent reliable report indicated that Nayouf's disease had again returned in its life-threatening form, based on test results in August, and that chemotherapy was necessary to ensure his short-term survival.

Aktham Nuaissa, a lawyer and one of the CDF members sentenced to nine years in prison in 1992, was released in 1998 because of poor health. But he has been unable to obtain a passport and was informed that he was not authorized to leave the country, making it impossible for him to travel abroad for medical care or to participate in regional and international human rights events. Syrian authorities have typically imposed such restrictions on the freedom of movement of former political prisoners.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considered at its fifty-fourth session, March 10-11, four periodic reports submitted by Syria as a state party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The committee singled out as a principal subject of concern Syria's discriminatory treatment of the Kurdish minority, particularly Syrian-born Kurds who were stateless. The committee noted that the stateless Kurds were "considered either as foreigners or as maktoumeen (unregistered) by the Syrian authorities" and "face administrative and practical difficulties in acquiring Syrian nationality, although they have no other nationality by birth." It recommended that authorities take further action to "protect the rights of all persons belonging to ethnic and national groups...notably the right to nationality and cultural self-expression." It called on Syria to "review its legislation on nationality in order to find an expeditious solution to the situation of Syrian-born Kurds and refugee children born in the Syrian Arab Republic."

United States

Syria remained one of the seven countries that the U.S. designated as "state sponsors of international terrorism," along with Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Sudan. The State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism," released on April 30, found "no evidence that Syrian officials have engaged directly in planning or executing international terrorist attacks since 1986." But it cited continuing U.S. concerns, including Syria's provision of "safe haven and support to several terrorist groups," and its failure "to stop anti-Israeli attacks by Hizballah and Palestinian rejectionist groups in southern Lebanon." The report noted that "Syria allowed – but did not participate in – a meeting of Palestinian rejectionist groups in Damascus in December [1998] to reaffirm their public opposition to the peace process." The State Department also acknowledged in "Background Notes: Syria," published in April, that "Syria and the U.S. have worked together in areas of mutual interest," citing the Middle East peace conference in Madrid (1991) and Operation Desert Storm against Iraq (1990-91).

Syria received no U.S. aid. Pursuant to U.S. trade sanctions first imposed in 1979 and broadened in 1986 – both on the grounds of Syrian involvement in terrorism – Syria was denied funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), the Commodity Credit Corporation Program for Agricultural Products, and the Export Enhancement Program. U.S. exporters to Syria also were not permitted to benefit from EXIM Bank and OPIC. Export licenses were also required for dual-use items such as "aircraft, aircraft parts, and computers of U.S.-origin (or containing 25 percent U.S.-origin components and technology," the State Department reported in 1999. Bilateral trade in 1998 totalled $161 million in U.S. exports to Syria, and about $45 million in Syrian exports to the U.S., according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In November 1998, the U.S.-based energy company Conoco and the French Elf-Aquitaine announced a joint $430 million natural gas development and infrastructure construction contract with the state-owned Syrian Petroleum Company.

Clinton administration officials only commented publicly about discussions with Syrian counterparts concerning the ongoing military conflict on the south Lebanon-Israeli border and resumption of peace negotiations with Israel. For example, on March 14, Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk met President Asad in Damascus and reported that they discussed "how to prepare the ground for an effort to resume negotiations on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks" after the Israeli prime ministerial elections. At a press conference in Washington with Israeli prime minister-elect Ehud Barak on July 19, President Clinton said that President Asad had "a golden opportunity" to resume talks with Israel. He also stated that the U.S. sought "more normal relations" with Syria and that "anything that Syria does to disassociate itself from terrorists is a positive step in the right direction." On a visit to Damascus on September 4 to meet Mr. Asad and other officials, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered a similar message. She said that her task was to "explore the prospects" for the resumption of peace talks between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, and discuss "the importance of restoring and maintaining calm in Southern Lebanon" because it was "an area where incidents of violence tend to feed each other."

Bilateral tension erupted on December 19, 1998, when Syrian demonstrators stormed and damaged the U.S. and British embassies and the U.S. ambassador's residence in Damascus during Operation Desert Fox, the codename for the U.S. and British bombing campaign against Iraq that commenced on December 17. In February 1999, the government-owned daily Tishrin quoted Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass saying that the demonstrators were "brave youth whose actions dealt a slap to the United States." Following an official U.S. protest, Tlass said that he had been misquoted.

European Union

In a January 7 report in al-Ba'th daily (Damascus), the government reported that Syria's trade with E.U. countries was slowly growing. It named Germany, Italy, and France as the leaders in exports to Syria in 1997, and said that the largest market for Syrian exports was Italy, followed by France, Spain, and Germany. There was no indication that any of these major European trading partners publicly raised human rights concerns.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.