U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Syria

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997   Despite the existence of some institutions of democratic government, Syria's political system places virtually absolute authority in the hands of the President, Hafiz Al-Asad. Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, internal politics, and the economy are made by President Asad with counsel from his ministers, high ranking members of the ruling Ba'th Party, and a relatively small circle of security advisers. Although the Parliament is elected every 4 years, the Ba'th Party is guaranteed a majority. The Parliament does not initiate laws, but only passes judgment on and sometimes modifies those proposed by the executive branch. The judiciary is constitutionally independent, but this is not the case in the exceptional (state of emergency) security courts, which are subject to political influence. The regular courts display independence, although political connections and bribery can influence verdicts. In general, all three branches of Government are guided by the views of the leadership of the Ba'th Party, whose primacy in state institutions is mandated by the Constitution. The powerful role of the security services in government, which extends beyond strictly security matters, stems in part from the state of emergency that has been in place almost continuously since 1963. The Government justifies martial law because of the state of war with Israel and past threats from terrorist groups. Syrian Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence are military agencies, while General Security, State Security, and Political Security come under the purview of the Ministry of Interior. The branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside the legal system. Their members often ignore the rights of suspects and detainees and commit serious human rights violations. The economy is based on commerce, agriculture, and oil production. It consists of a generally inefficient public sector, a private sector, and a mixed public/private sector. A complex bureaucracy and endemic corruption hamper economic growth. The Government has sought to promote the private sector through incentives and deregulation. Real economic growth is about 3.6 percent, although real per capita growth is less than 1 percent. Annual per capita gross domestic product is about $900, and inflation about 15 percent per year. Wage increases in the public sector have not kept pace with cost of living increases, and the gap between rich and poor has widened. The human rights situation remained poor, and the Government continues to restrict or deny fundamental rights. Serious abuses include the widespread use of torture in detention; generally poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without trial; fundamentally unfair trials in the security courts; an inefficient judiciary that suffers from corruption and, at times, political influence; infringement on citizens' privacy rights; limits on the freedom of movement; and, despite a slight loosening of censorship restrictions, the denial of the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. Because the Ba'th Party's domination of the political system is guaranteed by the Constitution, citizens do not have the right to change the government. The Government uses its vast powers so effectively that there is no organized political opposition and there have been very few antiregime manifestations. There is some societal discrimination and violence against women and discrimination against the Kurdish minority. The Government suppresses worker rights. Reportedly about 100 political activists were arrested in March. In May up to 800 members of the ethnic Turkoman minority were arrested, and perhaps 100 remain in detention without charge. As many as 3,000 political prisoners were released in late 1995, but there were no additional releases in 1996.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings and no confirmed reports of deaths in detention, although such deaths have occurred in previous years. There was an unconfirmed report of the death in detention of a Syrian schoolteacher, who allegedly was arrested for belonging to an Islamist group. The victim's body allegedly showed signs of torture, while security authorities reported that the detainee died in prison of a heart attack. Previous deaths in detention have not been investigated by the Government, and the number and identities of prisoners who died in prisons since the 1980's remains unknown. On December 31, a bomb exploded on a private transport bus in central Damascus, killing at least 11 persons and wounding 47 others. The perpetrators and motivations for this bomb attack were unknown at year's end.

b. Disappearance

There were no confirmed reports of politically motivated disappearances. Despite inquiries by international human rights organizations and foreign governments, the Government offered little new information on the welfare and whereabouts of persons who have been held incommunicado for years or about whom no more is known other than the approximate date of their detention (see Section 1.d.).

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Despite the existence of constitutional provisions and several Penal Code penalties for abusers, there was credible evidence that security forces continue to use torture. Former prisoners and detainees have reported that torture methods include electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; the forced insertion of objects into the rectum; beatings, sometimes, while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyperextension of the spine; and the use of a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the spine. Although torture may occur in prisons, torture is most likely while detainees are being held at one of the many detention centers run by the various security services throughout the country, and particularly while the authorities are trying to extract a confession or information about an alleged crime or alleged accomplices. The Government continues to deny the use of torture, and claims that it would prosecute anyone believed guilty of using excessive force or physical abuse. There was no news of any prosecutions of security officials during the year, although past victims of torture have identified the officials who beat them, up to the level of brigadier general. In allegations of excessive force or physical abuse made in court, the plaintiff is required to initiate his own suit against the alleged abuser in civil proceedings. Prison conditions vary and generally are poor and do not meet minimum international health and sanitation standards. Facilities for political or national security prisoners are generally worse than those that house common criminals. The prison at Tadmur in Palmyra, where many political and national security prisoners have been kept, is widely considered to have the worst conditions. At some prisons, authorities allow visitation rights, but in other cases security officials demand bribes from family members wishing to visit incarcerated relatives. Overcrowding and substandard or insufficient food exist at several prisons. Some former detainees have reported that the Goverment prohibits reading materials, even the Koran, for political prisoners. The Government does not permit independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions. In instances in which foreign nationals are arrested, the authorities sometimes delay or deny prison visits by foreign diplomats. The authorities consider Syrian nationals who hold dual nationality only as Syrians, and thus do not necessarily recognize or grant requests by foreign diplomats to visit or otherwise assist such persons. Even in some of those cases where the Government granted foreign diplomats access to dual nationals, the diplomats had to wait for over a month to gain access. The Government did not grant access in all cases.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Emergency Law, which authorizes the Government to conduct preventive arrests, overrides the Penal Code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention, including the need to obtain warrants. Officials contend that the Emergency Law is applied only in narrowly defined cases. Nonetheless, in cases involving political or national security offenses, arrests are generally carried out in secret, and suspects may be detained incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and are denied the right to a judicial determination for the pretrial detention. Some of these practices are prohibited by the state of emergency, but the authorities are not held to these strictures. The Government apparently has continued to detain the relatives of detainees or of fugitives in order to obtain confessions or the fugitive's surrender (see Section 1.f.). Defendants in civil and criminal trials have the right to bail hearings and the possible release from detention on their own recognizance. There is no bail option for those accused of national security offenses. Unlike defendants in regular criminal and civil cases, security detainees do not have access to lawyers prior to or during questioning. Detainees have no legal redress for false arrest. Security forces often do not provide detainees' families with information on their welfare or location while in detention. Consequently, many people who have disappeared in past years are believed to be in long-term detention without charge, or possibly to have died in such detention. The number of those who disappeared in this way probably has declined over the past few years, although this may be due to the Government's success in deterring political activity rather than a loosening of criteria for detention. The Government brought to trial many detainees who have been held incommunicado for years. However, those trials have been unfair (see Section 1.e.). Pretrial detention may be lengthy even in cases not involving political or national security offenses. The criminal justice system is backlogged; many criminal suspects are held in pretrial detention for months, and may have their trials extended for additional months. Lengthy pretrial detentions and drawn-out court proceedings are caused by a shortage of available courts and the absence of legal provisions for a speedy trial or plea bargaining. According to local lawyers, the new civilian courts announced in 1995 have not come into existence, and the criminal justice system remains backlogged. There were two reports of large-scale politically motivated arrests. There were local reports that the Government arrested up to 100 political activists in Dayr Al-Zur in March. No further information has become available on the whereabouts of these alleged political detainees. In May the Government detained without charge up to 800 members of the Turkoman minority, including community leaders, in connection with a series of small explosions in 4 cities. Most of the Turkomans were reportedly released in July, but as many as 100 still remain in detention. The last significant releases of political detainees were in late November and December 1995 (see Section 1.e.). While most of the doctors, lawyers, and engineers arrested in a mass crackdown in 1980 have been released, some apparently remain in prolonged detention without charge. Many Palestinian, Jordanian, and Lebanese citizens had been detained without charge by Syrian security services in both Lebanon and Syria, without any public accounting by the Government. The number of remaining political detainees is likely in the hundreds or more. The number of political detainees is difficult to estimate since the Government does not verify publicly the number of detentions without charge, the release of detainees, or whether detainees are subsequently sentenced to prison (see Section 1.e.). The Government has exiled citizens in the past, although the practice is prohibited by the Constitution. There were no known instances of forced exile in 1996.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the two exceptional courts dealing with alleged security cases are not independent of executive branch control. The regular court system displays independence, although political connections and bribery sometimes influence verdicts. The judicial system is composed of the civil and criminal courts; the religious courts, which adjudicate matters of personal status such as divorce and inheritance; military courts; and the security courts. The Supreme Constitutional Court is empowered to rule only on the constitutionality of laws and decrees. It does not hear appeals. Civil and criminal courts are organized under the Ministry of Justice. Defendants before these courts are entitled to the legal representation of their choice; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents; defendants are presumed innocent, are allowed to present evidence, and allowed to confront their accusers; and trials are public, except for those involving juveniles or sex offenses. Defendants may appeal their verdicts to a provincial appeals court and, ultimately to the Court of Cassation, which is the highest court of appeal. However, such appeals are hampered because the courts do not provide verbatim transcripts of cases – only summaries prepared by the presiding judges. There are no juries. Military courts have the authority to try civilian as well as military personnel. The venue for a civilian defendant is decided by a military prosector. There were continuing reports that the Government operates military field courts, in locations outside of established courtrooms. Such courts reportedly observe fewer of the formal procedures of regular military courts. The two security courts are the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), which tries political and national security cases, and the Economic Security Court (ESC), which tries cases involving financial crimes. Both courts operate under the state of emergency, not ordinary law, and do not observe constitutional provisions safeguarding defendants' rights. Charges against defendants in the SSSC are often vague. Many defendants appear to be tried for exercising normal political rights, such as free speech. For example, the Emergency Law authorizes the prosecution of anyone "opposing the goals of the revolution" or "shaking the confidence of the masses in the aims of the revolution," or trying to "change the economic or social structure of the State." Nonetheless, the Government contends that the SSSC tries only persons who have sought to use violence against the State. Under SSSC procedures, defendants are not present during the preliminary, or investigative, phase of the trial, when evidence is presented by the prosecutor. Trials are usually closed to the public. Lawyers are not guaranteed access to their clients before the trial and are excluded from the court during their client's initial interrogation by the prosecutor. Lawyers submit written defense pleas, rather than oral presentations. The State's case is often based on confessions, but defendants have not been allowed to argue in court that the confessions were coerced. There is no known instance in which the court ordered a medical examination for a defendant who claimed that he was tortured. The SSSC has reportedly aquitted some defendants, but the Government does not provide any statistics on the conviction rate. Defendants do not have the right to appeal verdicts, but sentences are reviewed by the Minister of Interior, who may ratify, nullify, or alter sentences. The President may also intervene in the review process. Many – perhaps hundreds – of cases passed through the SSSC in 1996. Most involved charges relating to membership in various banned political groups, including the Communist Party, the Party for Communist Action, and the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba'th Party. In the recent past, sentences have ranged up to 15 years. The Economic Security Court (ESC) tries persons for alleged violations of foreign-exchange laws and other economic crimes. Prosecution of economic crimes is not applied uniformly, as some government officials or business people with close connections to the Government have likely violated Syria's strict economic laws without prosecution. Like the SSSC, the ESC does not guarantee defendants due process. Defendants may not have adequate access to lawyers to prepare their defenses, and the State's case is usually based on confessions. Verdicts are likely influenced by high-ranking government officials. Those convicted of the most serious economic crimes do not have the right of appeal, but those convicted of lesser crimes may appeal to the Court of Cassation. The last significant releases of political prisoners and detainees were in late November and December 1995. Originally the Government claimed to have released some 1,650 political prisoners in November, but local estimates now place the number released between 2,200 and 3,000. Many of those released apparently were members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had not been involved in acts of violence. The release also may have included some persons from banned Communist parties, pro-Iraqi Ba'athists, and Nasserites. Some former prisoners reported having to sign admissions of guilt or loyalty oaths as a condition of their release. Other prisoners released in November 1995 apparently were in poor health as a result of their incarceration; they had been incarcerated without charge or have been detained in prison beyond the expiration of their original prison sentences, sometimes for years. A Presidential amnesty issued in December 1995 provided for the release of some 6,000 to 7,000 prisoners who had comitted common crimes. Among those released under this amnesty were 500 to 700 persons convicted by the extraconstitutional Economic Security Court. Consistent with past practice, the Government did not announce the number of prisoners released, nor has it responded to requests from international human rights groups and foreign governments for their names. In 1995 the Government also released four former Ba'th party officials imprisoned since 1970. The Government has released virtually all of those arrested at the time President Asad took power in 1970. At least three persons arrested during that period remain in prison, even though the sentences of two of them expired in 1985. The third apparently was never tried. The Government denies that it holds political prisoners, arguing that, although the aims of some prisoners may be political, their activities, including subversion, were criminal. However, the Emergency Law and the Penal Code are so vague, and the Government's power so broad, that many persons were convicted and are in prison for the mere expression of political opposition to the Government. The current population of political prisoners may range from several hundred to over 2,000.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Although laws provide for freedom from arbitrary interference, the Emergency Law authorizes the security services to enter homes and conduct searches with warrants if security matters – very broadly defined – are involved. The security services selectively monitor telephone conversations and facsimile transmissions and interfere with the mail. The Government opens mail destined for both citizens and foreign residents. It also prevents the delivery of human rights materials. The Government apparently has continued its practice of threatening or detaining the relatives of detainees or of fugitives in order to obtain confessions or the fugitive's surrender. The incidence of security checkpoints has diminished. There are fewer police checkpoints on roads and in cities and towns than in previous years. Generally, the security services set up checkpoints to search for smuggled goods, weapons, narcotics, and subversive literature. The searches take place without warrants. The Government and the Ba'th Party have monitored and tried to restrict some citizens' visits to foreign embassies and cultural centers.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to express their opinions freely in speech and in writing, but the Government restricts these rights significantly. The Government strictly controls dissemination of information and permits no written criticism of the President, the President's family, the Ba'th Party, the military, or the legitimacy of the regime. The Emergency Law allows the Government broad discretion in determining illegal expression. It prohibits the publishing of "false information," which opposes "the goals of the revolution" (see Section 1.e.). In the past, the Government has imprisoned journalists for failing to observe press restrictions. There is no information on whether these journalists are still imprisoned, nor were there any known arrests of journalists during the year. There were, however, reports that the state security services threatened local journalists for articles printed outside Syria. The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censor the domestic and foreign press. They usually prevent publication or distribution of any material deemed threatening or embarrassing to the Government. Censorship is usually stricter for materials in Arabic. Commonly censored subjects include: the Government's human rights record; Islamic fundamentalism; allegations of official involvement in drug trafficking; aspects of the Government's role in Lebanon; graphic descriptions of sex; material unfavorable to the Arab cause in the Middle East conflict; and material that is offensive to any of Syria's religious groups, or is partial to sectarianism. In addition, most journalists and writers in Syria practice self-censorship, in order to avoid provoking a negative government reaction. The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censors fiction and nonfiction works, including films. It also determines which films may not be shown at the cultural centers operated by foreign embassies. There continued to be a modest relaxation of censorship during the year. The media demonstrated somewhat wider latitude in reporting on regional developments, including the Middle East peace process. The media covered some peace process events factually, but other events were reported selectively to buttress official views. The Government newspapers continued to publish reports on government malfeasance and low-level corruption. Stories on high-level government corruption were printed in non-Syrian Arabic newspapers available for purchase in Syria, but these cases were portrayed as positive examples of the Government's anticorruption campaign. The Government or the Ba'th Party owns and operates the radio and television companies and the newspaper publishing houses. There are no privately owned newspapers. The Ministry of Information scripts the radio and television news programs to ensure that they follow the government line. The Government does not interfere with broadcasts from Israel. In late 1994, the Government announced that it would confiscate satellite receiving dishes and replace them with a government-controlled cable distribution system. However, no dishes were confiscated. It appears that the Government has informally sanctioned private ownership of satellite dishes, which continue to proliferate. The Government restricts academic freedom. Public school teachers are not permitted to express ideas contrary to government policy, although authorities allow somewhat greater freedom of expression at the university level.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of assembly does not exist. Citizens may not hold meetings unless they obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior. Most public demonstrations are organized by the Government or Ba'th Party. The Government applies the restrictions on public assembly in the Palestinian refugee camps, where controlled demonstrations have been allowed. The Government restricts freedom of association. Private associations must be registered with the Government in order to be considered legal. Some groups have not been able to register presumably because the Government viewed them as political, even though the groups considered themselves strictly cultural or professional. Unregistered groups may not hold meetings, and the authorities do not allow the establishment of independent political parties. The Government usually grants registration to groups not engaged in political or other activities deemed sensitive. In 1980 the Government dissolved, then reconstituted under its control, the executive boards of professional associations after some members staged a national strike and advocated an end to the state of emergency. The associations have not been independent since that time and are generally led by members of the Ba'th Party, although independents are allowed on their executive boards.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. The only advantage given to a particular religion by the Constitution is that which requires the President to be a Muslim. All religions and sects must register with the Government, which monitors fundraising and requires permits for all meetings by religious groups, except for worship. Although no law prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing Muslims, the Government discourages such activity. The few remaining Jews are generally barred from government employment and do not have military service obligations. They are the only minority group whose passports and identity cards note their religion. There is mandatory religious instruction in schools, with government-approved teachers and curriculum. The religion courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students, respectively. Syrian Jews have a separate primary school for Jews only, which includes religious instruction (see Section 5).

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The Government restricts travel near the Golan Heights and occasionally near Iraq. Travel to Israel is illegal. Citizens require government permission to travel abroad. Some have been denied such permission on political grounds, although government officials deny that the practice occurs. The authorities may prosecute any person found attempting to emigrate or travel abroad without official permission, or who is suspected of having visited Israel. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the Government persecuted upon their return those who applied for, but were denied, asylum abroad. Women over the age of 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives. In practice, either the husband or the wife may file a request with the Ministry of Interior to prohibit the spouse's departure from Syria. A father may request that the Ministry prohibit travel abroad by unmarried daughters, even if they are over 18 years of age. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) reported that as of June 1996 there were 347,391 registered Palestinian refugees in Syria. Palestinian refugees sometimes encounter difficulties in obtaining travel documents and reentering Syria after traveling abroad. The Government restricts entry by Palestinians who are not resident in Syria. The Government does not allow the Palestinian residents of Gaza to visit Syria. The Government cooperates on a case-by-case basis with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government provides first asylum; approximately 1,735 persons sought asylum through the UNHCR in 1996. Although the Government denied any forced repatriation of those who may have had a valid claim to refugee status, it apparently forcibly repatriated some Iraqi refugees, as well as some Sudanese, Iranian, Somali, and Libyan asylum seekers. At year's end there were an estimated 37,000 non-Palestinian refugees in Syria, of which approximately 3,500 were receiving assistance from the UNHCR, including 2,000 refugees of Iraqi origin at the El Hol camp and other locations.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Although citizens ostensibly vote for the President and members of Parliament, they do not have the right to change their government. The President has run for election unopposed since taking power in 1970, and political opposition to his rule is not tolerated. The President and his senior aides, particularly those in the military and security services, ultimately make all basic decisions on political and economic life with no element of public accountability. Moreover, the Constitution mandates that the Ba'th party is the ruling party in Syria and is guaranteed a majority in all government and popular associations, such as workers' and women's groups. Six smaller political parties are also permitted and, along with the Ba'th party, make up the National Progressive Front (NPF), a grouping of parties which represents the sole framework of legal political participation for citizens. While created ostensibly to give the appearance of a multiparty system, the NPF is dominated by the Ba'th party and does not change the essentially one-party character of the political system. The non-Ba'th party members of the NPF exist as political parties largely in name only and hew closely to Ba'th party and government policies. The Ba'th party dominates the Parliament, or "People's Council." Although parliamentarians may criticize policies and modify draft laws, the executive branch retains ultimate control over the legislative process. Since 1990 the Government has allowed independent non-NPF candidates to run for a limited number of seats in the 250-member People's Council. The current number of independent deputies is 80, guaranteeing a permanent absolute majority for the Ba'th party-dominated NPF. Persons who have been convicted by the State Security Court may be deprived of their political rights after they are released from prison. These restrictions include a prohibition against engaging in any political activity, the denial of a passport, and a bar on accepting a government job and some other forms of employment. The duration of such restrictions may last from 10 years to the remainder of the ex-prisoner's life. The Government contends that this practice is mandated by the Penal Code and has been law since 1949. Women and minorities, with the exception of the Jewish population and the stateless Syrian Kurds, participate in the political system without restriction. There are 2 female cabinet ministers and 24 female members of Parliament.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The Government does not allow the existence of local human rights groups. One or two human rights groups once operated legally but were banned by the Government. In March 1995, the Government took the unprecedented step of allowing the international human rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), to conduct a 48-day fact-finding mission to Syria, with a follow-up visit in July 1995. The HRW delegation met with several government ministers and was allowed to travel around the country, meet with lawyers and families of detainees and prisoners, and attend Supreme State Security Court trials, where its members talked to defendants, lawyers, and the judges in ongoing trials. The Government did not grant the group's request to visit prisons and detention centers holding political and national-security detainees, although it said the group could visit civilian prisons. When the group returned for a follow-up visit in July, it was told the SSSC was not in session, although the Court may indeed have been conducting proceedings. HRW produced a report sharply critical of the procedures of the SSSC and the absence of legal outlets for political opposition. The Government contended that the criticisms contained in the HRW report were unwarranted and inaccurate but later indicated its desire to continue a dialog with the group. Since the 1995 HRW visit, no international human rights groups have conducted fact-finding missions to Syria. As a matter of policy, the Government denies to international groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, that it commits human rights abuses. It does not permit representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit prisons. The Government says that it now responds in writing to all inquiries from nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) regarding human rights issues, including those regarding individual detainees and prisoners, through an interagency governmental committee established expressly for that purpose. Human Rights Watch reported in April that the Government has not responded to its request to account publicly for the possibly thousands of citizens who were executed at Tadmur Prison in the 1980's. In 1996 the Government had little new information to offer human rights organizations and foreign embassies on specific political prisoner inquiries. The usual government response is that information is lacking and that the prisoner in question has violated national security laws.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution provides for equal rights and equal opportunity for all citizens. In practice, membership in the Ba'th Party or close familial relations with a prominent party member or government official can be important for prospering. Party or government connections can pave the way for entrance into better elementary and secondary schools, access to lucrative employment, and greater power within the Government, the military, and the security services. Certain prominent positions, such as that of provincial governor, are reserved solely for Ba'th Party members. Apart from some discrimination against Kurds, there are no apparent patterns of systematic government discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language or social status.


Violence against women is known to occur. However, there are no reliable statistics for domestic violence or sexual assault in Syria. This is because the vast majority of cases go unreported, and victims generally are reluctant to seek assistance from nonfamily members. There are no laws against spousal rape. One preliminary academic study suggested that domestic violence is the largest single reason for divorces, and that such abuse is more prevalent among the less-educated. It appears to occur more in rural than in urban areas. Battered women have the legal right to seek redress in court, but few do so because of the social stigma attached to such action. The Syrian Women's Federation offers services to battered wives to remedy individual family problems. The Syrian Family Planning Association also seeks to deal with this problem. Some private groups, including the Family Planning Association, have organized seminars on violence against women, which were reported by the government press. There are no specifically designated shelters or safe-havens for battered women seeking to flee their husbands. There was a university seminar on violence against women in 1996. The Government has sought to overcome traditional discriminatory attitudes toward women, and encourages women's education. However, the Parliament has not yet changed retirement and social security laws that discriminate against women. Shari'a or Islamic law on divorce discriminates against women. For example, husbands may claim adultery as grounds for divorce, but wives face more difficulty in presenting the same argument. In addition, if a woman requests a divorce from her husband, she is not entitled to child support, even if she keeps the children. Inheritance for Muslims is based on Shari'a. Accordingly, women are granted a smaller share of inheritance than male heirs. On the other hand, male heirs are mandated by Shari'a to provide financial support to the female relatives who inherit less; for example, a brother who inherits an unmarried sister's share from their parent's inheritance is obligated to provide for the sister's well-being. If there is a problem, she has the right to sue, but such cases are not common. Shari'a law applies to Muslims only. Christians are subject to their church canon law on marriage and divorce, making divorces difficult to obtain in most cases. Christians are subject to civil laws on inheritance. Polygyny is legal and practiced by a minority of Muslim men. Under Shari'a, a husband has the right to take up to four wives without asking the consent of his other wife/wives. The first wife and later wives have the right to seek a divorce if the husband takes an additional wife; however, in doing so, the wife loses the right to alimony or child support. A father may request that the Government prohibit travel abroad by his married daughter (see Section 2.d.). Women are not impeded from owning or managing land or other real property. Women constitute 6 percent of judges, 10 percent of lawyers, 57 percent of teachers below university level, and 20 percent of university professors.


There is no legal discrimination between boys and girls in school or in health care. Education is compulsory for all children, male or female, between the ages of 6 and 12. According to the Syrian Women's Union, about 46 percent of the total number of students through the secondary level are female. Nevertheless, societal pressure for early marriage and childbearing interfere with girls' educational progress, particularly in rural areas, where dropout rates for female students remain high. As for career aspirations, these are as much a function of social class as societal pressure. Some girls may aspire to marry, have children early, and be supported by a husband; other women are able to pursue education and career aspirations in addition to marrying and having children. The law stresses the need to protect children, and the Government has organized seminars on the subject of child welfare. Although there are cases of child abuse, there is no societal pattern of abuse against children. The law provides for severe penalties for those found guilty of the most serious abuses against children.

People with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against the disabled and seeks to integrate them into the public sector work force. However, implementation is lax. Regulations reserving 2 percent of government and public sector jobs for the disabled are not rigorously implemented. The disabled do not have recourse to the courts regarding discrimination. There are no laws mandating access to public buildings for the disabled.

Religious Minorities

Although there is a significant amount of religious tolerance, religion or ethnic affiliation can be a contributing factor in determining career opportunities. For example, members of the President's Alawi sect hold a predominant position in the security services and military, which is out of proportion to their percentage of the population. Nevertheless, government policy officially disavows sectarianism. There is little evidence of societal discrimination or violence against religious minorities, including Jews. Government-run schools offer separate religious instruction for Christians and Muslims. Jews have a separate primary school which offers religious instruction on Judaism, in addition to traditional subjects. Although Arabic is the official language in public schools, the Government allows the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, and Chaldean in some schools on the basis that these are "liturgical languages." Technically, all schools are government-run and nonsectarian, although some schools are run in practice by Christian and Jewish minorities.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Although the Government contends that there is no discrimination against the Kurdish population, it has placed limits on the use and teaching of the Kurdish language, Kurdish cultural expression, and, at times, the celebration of Kurdish festivals. Some members of the Kurdish community have been tried by the Supreme State Security Court for expressing support for greater Kurdish autonomy or independence. Although the Asad Government stopped the practice of stripping Syrian Kurds of their Syrian nationality (some 120,000 lost their nationality under this program in the 1960's), it never restored this nationality. As a result, they and those who had their nationality taken away and their children have been unable to obtain Syrian nationality and passports, or even identification cards and birth certificates. Without Syrian nationality, these stateless Kurds are unable to own land, cannot be employed by the Government, and have no right to vote. They encounter difficulties in enrolling their children in school. Stateless Kurdish men may not legally marry Syrian citizens.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Although the Constitution provides for this right, workers are not free to establish unions independently of the Government's bureaucratic structure. All unions must belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) which is dominated by the Ba'th Party and is actually a part of the State's bureaucratic structure. The GFTU is an information channel between political decisionmakers and workers. The GFTU transmits instructions downward to the unions and workers but also conveys information to decisionmakers about worker conditions and needs. The GFTU provides the Government with opinions on legislation, organizes workers, and formulates rules for various member unions. The GFTU president is a senior member of the Ba'th Party. He and his deputy may attend cabinet meetings on economic affairs. The GFTU controls nearly all aspects of union activity. The law does not prohibit strikes, except in the agricultural sector; nevertheless, workers are inhibited from striking because of previous government crackdowns on strikers. In 1980 the security forces arrested many union and professional association officials who planned a national strike. Some of those remain in detention or have been tried by the State Security Court (see Section 2.b.). The GFTU is affiliated with the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions. In 1992 Syria's eligibility for tariff preferences under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences was suspended because the Government failed to take steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights to Syrian workers.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

This right does not exist in any meaningful sense. Government representatives are part of the bargaining process in the public sector. In state-owned companies, union representatives negotiate hours, wages, and conditions of employment with representatives of the employers and supervising ministry. Workers serve on the boards of directors of public enterprises. The law provides for collective bargaining in the private sector, but any such agreement between labor and management must be ratified by the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, who effectively has the power of veto. The Committee of Experts of the International Labor Organization (ILO) has long noted the Government's resistance to abolish the Minister's power over collective contracts. Unions have the right to litigate disputes over work contracts and other workers' interests with employers and may ask for binding arbitration. In practice, labor officials and management settle most disputes without resort to legal remedies or arbitration. Management has the right to request arbitration, but this is seldom exercised. Arbitration usually occurs when a worker initiates a dispute over wages or severance pay. Since the unions are absorbed into the Government's bureaucratic structure, they are protected by law from antiunion discrimination. There were no reports of antiunion discrimination. There are no unions in the seven free trade zones. Firms in the zones are exempt from the laws and regulations governing hiring and firing, although they must observe some provisions on health, safety, hours, and sick and annual leave.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

There is no law prohibiting forced or compulsory labor. There were no reports of forced or compulsory labor involving children or foreign or domestic workers. Forced labor has been imposed as a punishment for some convicts.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The minimum age for employment is 14 in the public sector and 12 in the private sector. In all cases, parental permission is required for children under the age of 16. The law prohibits children from working at night. However, all these laws apply only to children working for a salary. Thus, those working in family businesses and who are not technically paid a salary – a common phenomenon – do not fall under the law. The Government claims that the expansion of the private sector has led to more young children working. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for enforcing child labor laws but does not have enough inspectors to ensure compliance with the laws.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The Minister of Labor and Social Affairs is responsible for enforcing minimum wage levels in the public and private sectors. The minimum wage, which the Government had raised in 1994 (accompanying a cut in subsidies on basic food items), remained unchanged in 1996 at $50 (550 Syrian pounds) per month in the public sector and $44 (484 Syrian pounds) per month in the private sector. A committee of labor, management, and government representatives submits recommended changes in the minimum wage to the Minister. The minimum wage does not provide an adequate standard of living for a worker and family. As a result, many workers take additional jobs or are supported by their extended families. The statutory workweek is 6 days of 6 hours each, but in some cases a 9-hour workday is permitted. The laws mandate one 24-hour rest day per week. Rules and regulations severely limit the ability of an employer to dismiss employees without cause. Even if a person is absent from work without notice for a long period, the employer must follow a lengthy procedure of trying to find the person and notify him, including through newspaper notices, before he is able to take any action against the employee. Dismissed employees have the right to appeal before a committee of representatives from the union, management, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, and the appropriate municipality. Such committees usually find in favor of the employee. The law does not protect temporary workers who are not subject to regulations on minimum wages. Small private firms and businesses employ such workers to avoid the costs associated with hiring permanent employees. The law mandates safety in all sectors, and managers are expected to implement them fully. In practice, there is little enforcement without worker complaints, which occur infrequently despite government efforts to post notices on safety rights and regulations. Large companies, such as oil field contractors, also employ safety engineers. The ILO has noted that a provision in the Labor Code allowing employers to keep workers at the workplace for as many as 11 hours a day might lead to abuse. However, there have been no reports of such abuses. Officials from the Ministries of Health and Labor inspect work sites for compliance with health and safety standards. Such inspections appear to be haphazard, apart from those conducted in hotels and other facilities that cater to foreigners. Rural enforcement of labor laws is also more lax than that in urban areas, where inspectors are concentrated. Workers may lodge complaints about health and safety conditions with special committees established to adjudicate such cases. Workers have the right to remove themselves from hazardous conditions without risking loss of employment.

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