Machu, Carol A., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
Human Rights Activists Arrested and Tortured in Syria
Syria is detaining several lawyers and human rights activists on charges of violating Syrian state of emergency laws. As reported by both the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Middle East Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, these detentions violate Syria's obligations under several international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the U.N. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. The detentions have resulted in the sentencing of six Syrian human rights workers to prison terms of up to 10 years of hard labor, according to the human rights organizations.
The Syrian government actions represent a reversal of Syria's recent moderate political behavior, and have been met with dismay by the human rights groups monitoring Middle East affairs. In November and December 1991, coinciding with President Hafez Al-Assad's re-election effort for a fourth seven-year term, nearly 2,000 political detainees were pardoned. This release was welcomed by human rights advocates.
On Nov. 17, Syria's parliament unanimously endorsed sole candidate Assad for a fourth term. A popular referendum on Dec. 2 approved his re-election by a 99.98 percent vote, according to the Syrian government. Following Assad's re-election, however, a political crackdown on opposition and dissent has resumed, Middle East Watch reports.
The detainees who are the focus of current international attention all are members of the Committee for the Defense of Political Reforms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). The most prominent activist detained is attorney Aktham Nu'aissa. Syria regards human rights activities as political in nature and therefore restricts this activity to groups within the Ba'th Party structure. The CDF, as an independent organization, is not recognized by the Syrian government. Although only six defendants have been brought to trial, Middle East Watch reports that at least 50 other CDF supporters and their relatives have been arrested and detained.
Following the re-election of President Assad, the CDF circulated leaflets criticizing the referendum. The CDF statement charged that the Syrian government had contrived popular support for the Assad government, manipulated voter participation and spent approximately US $395 million wastefully on election activities.
The CDF proclamation called for genuine Syrian political reform that would permit the existence of independent political groups, the release of all political prisoners, lifting the state of emergency, cessation of political detentions and compliance with accepted international judicial standards. Shortly after the release of the CDF statement on Dec. 10, 1991, the 43rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its members were detained and held incommunicado until Feb. 29, 1992, when the defendants were brought to trial.
The trial of the CDF members violated many standards of international law covered in the ICCPR and the U.N. Charter, including the right to meet with counsel prior to trial, the right to a free and open public trial, and the right to appeal, as well as protection from physical torture and abuse during pretrial detention. Court-appointed lawyers for the detained were only allowed to meet with their clients at the trial, and in full observation of the court. …