Country Reports on Human Rights Practice - 2003
Syria is a republic under a military regime with virtually absolute authority in the hands of the President. The President, with counsel from his ministers, senior members of the ruling Ba'th Party, and a small circle of security advisers, makes key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, internal politics, and the economy. Ba'th Party leaders, whose primacy in state institutions and the Parliament is mandated by the Constitution, influence all three branches of government. The Parliament, elected in March, may not initiate laws but only assess and, at times, modify those proposed by the executive branch. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, security courts were subject to political influence. Political connections and bribery sometimes influenced verdicts in regular courts.
The powerful role of the security services, which extends beyond strictly security matters, is due to the state of emergency, which has been in place since 1963. The Government justifies ongoing martial law because of its state of war with Israel and past threats against the state from terrorist groups. Syrian Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence are military agencies; the Ministry of Interior controls general security, state security, and political security. The branches of the security services operated independently of each other and outside the legal system. The Government maintained effective control of the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous, serious human rights abuses.
The population of the country was approximately 17 million. The economy was based on commerce, agriculture, oil production, and government services. The dominant state role in the economy, a complex bureaucracy, security concerns, corruption, currency restrictions, a lack of modern financial services and communications, and a weak legal system hampered economic growth, which was last estimated at 2 percent in 2001.
The Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses. Citizens did not have the right to change their government. The Government prevented any organized political opposition, and there have been very few anti-government manifestations. Continuing serious abuses included the use of torture in detention; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged detention without trial; fundamentally unfair trials in the security courts; and infringement on privacy rights. The Government significantly restricted freedom of speech and of the press. Freedom of assembly does not exist under the law, and the Government restricted freedom of association. The Government did not officially allow independent domestic human rights groups to exist; however, it permitted periodic meetings of unlicensed civil society forums throughout the year. The Government placed some limits on freedom of religion and freedom of movement. Proselytizing by groups it considered Zionist was not tolerated. Violence and societal discrimination against women were problems. The Government discriminated against the stateless Kurdish minority, suppressed worker rights, and tolerated child labor in some instances.
RESPECT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
a. Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life
There were no political killings; however, the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) reported that, on August 10, a Syrian Kurd died after being tortured while in the custody of Syrian Military Intelligence. The Government had not investigated previous deaths in detention.
There were no confirmed reports of politically motivated disappearances. Many persons who disappeared in past years were believed to be in long-term detention or to have died in detention.
The Government continued to withhold new information on the welfare and whereabouts of persons who have been held incommunicado for years or about whom little is known other than the approximate date of their detention. Despite the Government's claim that it has released all Palestinians and Jordanian and Lebanese citizens reportedly abducted from Lebanon during and after its civil war, various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and family members of those who allegedly remain in prison continued to dispute the Government's claim (see Section 1.d.).
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The Constitution prohibits torture, and the Penal Code provides punishment for abusers; however, there was credible evidence that security forces continued to use torture.
During the year, the SHRC reported numerous cases of torture in custody, including the case of two Kurdish leaders, Marwan Uthman and Hasan Saleh, who were arrested in December 2002 for organizing a demonstration (see Section 2.b.). Former prisoners and detainees, as well as the SHRC, reported that torture methods included administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyperextending the spine; bending the detainees into the frame of a wheel and whipping exposed body parts; and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine. Torture was most likely to occur while detainees were being held at one of the many detention centers run by the various security services throughout the country, particularly while the authorities were attempting to extract a confession or information.
A foreign citizen (with dual Syrian nationality) detained in February reported that he was tortured while in prison. Diplomatic representatives reported seeing bruises on the prisoner's body after his release from prison. During the year, at least nine Kurds were jailed and reportedly tortured in prison.
Past victims of torture have identified the officials who tortured them, up to the level of brigadier general. If allegations of excessive force or physical abuse were to be made in court, the plaintiff was required to initiate his own civil suit against the alleged abuser. However, no action was taken against the accused. There were no examples of such allegations during the year. Courts did not order medical examinations for defendants who claimed that they were tortured (see Section 1.e.).
At year's end, Raed Hijazi remained in custody while awaiting an appeals decision for the death sentence handed down by Jordanian authorities in 2002.
Prison conditions generally were poor and did not meet international standards for health and sanitation. At some prisons, security officials demanded bribes from family members. Overcrowding and the denial of food remained problems at several prisons. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), prisoners and detainees were held without adequate medical care, and some prisoners with significant health problems reportedly were denied medical treatment. Some former detainees reported that the Government prohibited reading materials, even the Koran, for political prisoners.
There were separate facilities for men, women, and children. Pretrial detainees, particularly those held for political or security reasons, were usually held separately from convicted prisoners. Facilities for political or national security prisoners generally were worse than those for common criminals.
There were reports of death in prison due to torture (see Section 1.a.).
The Government did not permit independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions; however, diplomatic or consular officials were granted access in some cases.
d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile
The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, these remained significant problems. The Ministry of Interior controlled the police force, which many observers considered corrupt. The 1963 Emergency Law authorizes the Government to conduct preventive arrests and overrides Constitutional and Penal Code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention, including the need to obtain warrants. In cases involving political or national security offenses, arrests often were carried out in secret. Suspects could be detained incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and denied the right to a judicial determination regarding pretrial detention. Additionally, those suspected of political or national security offenses could be arrested and prosecuted under ambiguous and broad articles of the Penal Code and subsequently tried in either the criminal or security courts.
Defendants in civil and criminal trials have the right to bail hearings and possible release from detention on their own recognizance. Bail was not allowed for those accused of state security offenses. Unlike defendants in regular criminal and civil cases, security detainees did not have access to lawyers prior to or during questioning.
Detainees have no legal redress for false arrest. Many persons who have disappeared in past years were believed to be in long-term detention without charge or possibly to have died in detention. Many detainees brought to trial have been held incommunicado for years, and their trials often were unfair (see Section 1.e.). There were reliable reports that the Government did not notify foreign governments when their citizens were arrested or detained or did so only after the prisoner was released. Many criminal suspects were held in pretrial detention for months and may have had their trials extended for additional months. Lengthy pretrial detention and drawn-out court proceedings were caused by a shortage of available courts and the absence of legal provisions for a speedy trial or plea-bargaining (see Section 1.e.).
During the year, the security forces conducted mass arrests of suspected Islamists: 24 persons in Zabdani; 35 in Aleppo; and 20 in Damascus. The suspects remained in detention at year's end.
The Government continued threatening or detaining the relatives of detainees or of fugitives to obtain confessions, minimize outside interference, or prompt the fugitive's surrender (see Section 1.f.). There were reports that security personnel forced prisoners to watch relatives being tortured in order to extract confessions. According to Amnesty International (AI) and the SHRC, security forces also detained family members of suspected oppositionists (see Section 1.f.).
The Government, through its security services, also threatened families or friends of detainees to ensure their silence, to force them to disavow publicly their relatives, or to force detainees into compliance. For example, the family of a human rights activist received calls from security service personnel alleging misconduct and inappropriate social behavior by the activist.
The number of remaining political detainees was unknown. AI's 2003 report states that 800 political detainees were held in Sednaya prison and that hundreds of others were held in other prisons. There also were Jordanian, Lebanese, and Palestinian political detainees. Estimates of detainees were difficult to confirm because the Government did not verify publicly the number of detentions without charge, the release of detainees or amnestied prisoners, or whether detainees subsequently are sentenced to prison (see Section 1.e.).
Former prisoners were subject to a so-called "rights ban," which begins from the day of sentencing and lasts until 7 years after the expiration of the sentence, in the case of felony convictions. Persons subject to this ban were not allowed to vote, run for office, or work in the public sector; they often also were denied passports. In practice, restrictions may continue beyond that period.
The Constitution prohibits forced exile, and, unlike in previous years, there were no reports of forced exile during the year.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the two courts dealing with cases of alleged national security violations were not independent of executive branch control. Political connections and bribery sometimes influenced verdicts in regular courts.
The judicial system is composed of the civil and criminal courts, military courts, security courts, and religious courts, which adjudicate matters of personal status such as divorce and inheritance (see Section 5). The Court of Cassation is the highest court of appeal. The Supreme Constitutional Court rules on the constitutionality of laws and decrees; however, it does not hear appeals.
Civil and criminal courts are organized under the Ministry of Justice. Defendants before these courts were entitled to the legal representation of their choice; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents. Defendants were presumed innocent; they were allowed to present evidence and to confront their accusers. Trials were public, except for those involving juveniles or sex offenses. Defendants could appeal their verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. Such appeals were often difficult to win 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 civilians as well as military personnel. A military prosecutor decides the venue for a civilian defendant. There have been reports that the Government operated military field courts in locations outside established courtrooms. Such courts reportedly observed fewer of the formal procedures of regular military courts. During the year, there were no reports of military field courts being used.
On July 15, a military court dropped all charges against lawyer and SHRC Chairman Haytham al-Maleh, who had been charged with spreading false news, belonging to an international political association, and publishing material which caused sectarian friction. The court accepted that a July 9 presidential amnesty for misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes covered al-Maleh's charges.
The two security courts are the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), which tried political and national security cases, and the Economic Security Court (ESC), which tried cases involving financial crimes. Both courts operated under the state of emergency and did not observe constitutional provisions safeguarding defendants' rights.
Charges against defendants in the SSSC were vague. Defendants appeared 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," "shaking the confidence of the masses in the aims of the revolution," or attempting to "change the economic or social structure of the State." The Government stated that the SSSC tries only persons who have sought to use violence against the State.
Under SSSC procedures, defendants were not present during the preliminary or investigative phase of the trial, during which the prosecutor presents evidence. Trials usually were closed to the public. Lawyers were not ensured access to their clients before the trial and were excluded from the court during their client's initial interrogation by the prosecutor. Lawyers submitted written defense pleas rather than oral presentations.
During the year, there were several cases in which lawyers representing defendants in national security cases had their licenses to practice law suspended. The State's case often was based on confessions, and defendants were not allowed to argue in court that their confessions were coerced. The SSSC has reportedly acquitted some defendants, but the Government did not provide any statistics regarding the conviction rate. Defendants did not have the right to appeal verdicts, but the Minister of Interior, who may ratify, nullify, or alter them, reviews sentences. The President also may intervene in the review process.
Accurate information regarding the number of cases heard by the SSSC was difficult to obtain, although hundreds of cases were believed to pass through the court annually. Many reportedly involved charges relating to membership in various banned political groups, including the Party of Communist Action and the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba'th Party. Sentences as long as 15 years have been imposed in the past. Human rights NGOs were not permitted to visit the SSSC (see Section 4).
The ESC tried persons for alleged violations of foreign exchange laws and other economic crimes. The prosecution of economic crimes was not applied uniformly. Like the SSSC, the ESC did not ensure due process for defendants. Defendants were not provided adequate access to lawyers to prepare their defenses, and the State's case usually was based on confessions. High-ranking government officials may influence verdicts. Those convicted of the most serious economic crimes did not have the right of appeal, but those convicted of lesser crimes could appeal to the Court of Cassation. The Economic Penal Code allowed defendants in economic courts to be released on bail; however, bail is not allowed for those accused of forgery, counterfeiting, or auto theft.
At least two persons arrested when the late President Asad took power in 1970 may remain in prison, despite the expiration of one of the prisoners' sentences.
The Emergency Law and the Penal Code are so broad and vague, and the Government's power so sweeping, that many persons were convicted and may remain in prison for the mere expression of political opposition to the Government.
The exact number of political prisoners was unknown. In 2001, a domestic human rights organization estimated the number to be nearly 800, including approximately 130 belonging to the Islamic Liberation Party, 250 members and activists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, 150 members of the pro-Iraq wing of the Ba'th Party, and 14 Communists. In 2002, the SHRC estimated that there were approximately 4,000 political prisoners still in detention. The Government did not permit regular access to political prisoners by international humanitarian organizations.
f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions; however, the Emergency Law authorizes the security services to enter homes and conduct searches without warrants if broadly defined security matters are involved. The security services selectively monitored telephone conversations and fax transmissions. The Government opened mail destined for both citizens and foreign residents. It also prevented the delivery of human rights materials (see Section 2.a.). The Government routinely monitored Internet communications, including e-mail, and blocked access to some Internet sites.
The Government detained relatives of detainees or of fugitives to obtain confessions or the fugitive's surrender (see Section 1.d.).
In the past, the Government and the Ba'th Party monitored and attempted 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 for freedom of speech and the press; however, the Government significantly restricted these rights in practice. The Government strictly controlled the dissemination of information and prohibited written or oral criticism of the Government. The Government also prohibited sectarian issues to be raised. Detention and beatings for individual expressions of opinion that violated these unwritten rules occurred. The Government also threatened activists in an attempt to control behavior. Journalists and writers practiced self-censorship.
The National Progressive Front's (NPF) Communist Party newspaper, The People's Voice; the NPF's Union Socialist Party's private newspaper, The Unionist; a private satirical weekly newspaper, The Lamplighter, which criticized politically nonsensitive instances of government waste and corruption; and The Economist, which was critical of government performance, were published during the year. In August, the Ministry of Information revoked The Lamplighter's license, claiming that it had failed to comply with the Publications Law. The Lamplighter believed it was closed because its editor, Ali Ferzat, published cartoons critical of Saddam Hussein in a Kuwaiti newspaper in February.
The print and electronic media at times were critical of the Ba'th Party and government performance and reported openly on a range of social and economic issues. Some Damascus-based correspondents for regional Arab media were able to file reports on internal political issues, such as rumored governmental changes, new political discussion groups, and the possible introduction of new parties to the NPF.
The media continued to broaden their reporting on regional developments, including the Middle East peace process. The media covered some peace process events factually, but others were reported selectively to support official views. The government-controlled press increased its coverage of official corruption and governmental inefficiency. A few privately-owned newspapers published during the year; foreign-owned, foreign-published newspapers continued to circulate relatively freely.
The Government or the Ba'th Party owned and operated the radio and television companies and most of the newspaper publishing houses. The Ministry of Information closely monitored radio and television news programs to ensure adherence to the government policies. The Government did not interfere with broadcasts from abroad. Satellite dishes were widely used and available.
The Emergency Law and Penal Code articles dealing with crimes against state security allowed the Government broad discretion in determining what constitutes illegal expression. The Emergency Law prohibits the publication of "false information" which opposes "the goals of the revolution" (see Section 1.e.). Penal Code articles prohibit acts or speech inciting confessionalism.
The 2001 Publications Law permits the reestablishment of publications that were circulated prior to 1963 and establishes a framework in which the National Front Parties, as well as other approved private individuals and organizations, would be permitted to publish their own newspapers. However, the law also stipulates imprisonment and stiff financial penalties as part of broad, vague provisions prohibiting the publication of "inaccurate" information, particularly if it "causes public unrest, disturbs international relations, violates the dignity of the state or national unity, affects the morale of the armed forces, or inflicts harm on the national economy and the safety of the monetary system." Persons found guilty of publishing such information were subject to prison terms ranging from 1 to 3 years and fines ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 (500,000 to 1 million pounds). The amendments also impose strict punishments on reporters who do not reveal their government sources in response to government requests.
The Government imprisoned journalists for failing to observe press restrictions. Official media reported that in December 2002, the Government arrested journalist Ibrahim Hamidi on charges of "publishing unfounded news" in violation of the Publications Law. It was believed to be an article in the London-based al-Hayat discussing the Government's contingency planning for possible hostilities in Iraq. Hamidi was released on bail on May 25 and the charges against him were pending at year's end.
In May 2002, the Government arrested Aziza Sbanni, Damascus Bureau Chief for the Lebanese newspaper The Editor, and her sister Shairen. The sisters were imprisoned until May when they were released without trial.
The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censored domestic and imported foreign press. Publication or distribution of any material deemed threatening or embarrassing by the security services to high levels of the Government was prohibited. Censorship usually was stricter for materials in Arabic. Commonly censored subjects included: 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 sexual activity; material critical of Arab parties in the Middle East conflict; and material offensive to any of the country's religious groups.
The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance censored fiction and nonfiction works, including films. It also approved which films could or could not be shown at the cultural centers operated by foreign embassies. The Government prohibited the publication of books and other materials in Kurdish; however, there were credible reports that Kurdish language materials were available in the country (see Section 5).
Internet access and access to e-mail was limited but growing. The Government blocked access to selected Internet sites that contained information deemed politically sensitive or pornographic in nature and consistently blocked citizens' access to servers that provided free e-mail services. The Government has disrupted telephone services to the offices and residences of several foreign diplomats, allegedly because the lines were used to access Internet providers outside the country.
The Government restricted academic freedom. Public school teachers were not permitted to express ideas contrary to government policy; however, authorities permitted somewhat greater freedom of expression at the university level.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The Constitution provides for the right of assembly; however, the Government generally did not respect this right in practice. Citizens could hold demonstrations if the Ministry of Interior granted permission; however, the Government or the Ba'th Party organized most public demonstrations. The Government selectively permitted some demonstrations, usually for political reasons. The Government applied the restrictions on public assembly in Palestinian refugee camps, where controlled demonstrations were allowed.
The Government required political forums and discussion groups to obtain prior approval to hold lectures and seminars and to submit lists of all attendees. Despite these restrictions several domestic human rights and civil society groups held meetings without registering with the Government or obtaining prior approval for the meetings. However, in August, the Government arrested and later released 21 persons in Aleppo for attempting to attend an unapproved lecture marking the 40th anniversary of the declaration of the Emergency Law. Fourteen were subsequently charged with belonging to a clandestine organization and undertaking acts of incitement. They were scheduled to be tried by a military court in January 2004.
There were numerous demonstrations during the year, most of which were permitted or organized by the Government.
In June, the security forces forcibly broke up a demonstration by Syrian Kurdish school children and arrested eight of the adults accompanying them. In December 2002, the Government permitted a demonstration by a Kurdish political party, but 2 days later it arrested two of the organizers of the demonstration. At year's end, all remained in prison, and reportedly were tortured (see Section 1. c.). All were scheduled to be tried in the SSSC in January 2004.
The Constitution permits private associations but also grants the Government the right to limit their activities. In practice, the Government restricted freedom of association. Private associations were required to register with authorities. In the past, requests for registration have been denied, presumably on political grounds. The Government usually granted registration to groups not engaged in political or other activities deemed sensitive.
The Government did not permit the establishment of independent political parties (see Section 3).
In 2002, the Government sentenced 10 human rights activists, who had called for the expansion of civil liberties and organized public dialogue, to lengthy prison stays for committing crimes against state security (see Sections 1.d. and 2.a.).
The executive boards of professional associations were not independent. Members of the Ba'th Party generally led the associations; however, nonparty members could serve on their executive boards.
c. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, it imposed restrictions in some areas. The Constitution requires that the President be a Muslim. There is no official state religion; Sunni Muslims constituted the majority of the population.
All religions and religious orders must register with the Government, which monitored fund raising and required permits for all meetings by religious groups, except for worship. There was a strict separation of religious institutions and the State. Religious groups tended to avoid any involvement in internal political affairs. The Government, in turn, generally refrained from involvement in strictly religious issues. The Government approves all textbooks, which present religion as a way to foster national unity and tolerance.
The Government considered militant Islam a threat and followed closely the practice of its adherents. The Government allowed many new mosques to be built; however, sermons were monitored and controlled, and mosques were closed between prayers.
The SHRC reported three large-scale arrests of suspected Islamists during the year (see Section 1.d.).
All schools are government-run and nonsectarian; however, Christian and Druze minorities run some schools. There was mandatory religious instruction in schools, with government-approved teachers and curriculums. Religion courses were divided into separate classes for Muslim, Druze, and Christian students. Although Arabic is the official language in public schools, the Government permitted the teaching of Armenian, Hebrew, Syriac (Aramaic), and Chaldean in some schools on the basis that these are "liturgical languages."
Muslims and Christians are subject to their respective religious laws on marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance (see Section 5).
Although the law does not prohibit proselytizing, in practice, the Government discouraged such activity, particularly when it was deemed a threat to the relations among religious groups. Foreign missionaries were present, but operated discreetly.
In 1964, the Government banned Jehovah's Witnesses as a "politically motivated Zionist organization;" however, members of Jehovah's Witnesses have continued to practice their faith privately despite the official ban.
The Constitution prohibits sectarianism although it does specify that the President be a Muslim; however, in the case of Alawis, religious affiliation facilitated access to influential and sensitive posts. For example, members of the President's Alawi sect, estimated at 12 percent, held a predominant position in the security services and military, well out of proportion to their percentage of the population (see Section 3).
For primarily political rather than religious reasons, the fewer than 100 Jews remaining in the country generally remained barred from government employment and had no military service obligations. Jews remained the only religious minority group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.
For a more detailed discussion, see the 2003 International Religious Freedom Report.
Source: The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department, February 2004