Report on Human Rights
Practices for 1996--Syria
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Source: U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices