Hopes for Political Reform Eclipsed in Syria ; A Court Hearing Yesterday Highlighted the Impact of a Crackdown on Dissidents

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Ask Haitham Maleh why he is still free when many of his reformist colleagues are now in jail, and the veteran Syrian human rights activist smiles wryly. "I don't know. Ask God," says the lawyer with a shrug. "I broke the barrier of fear a long time ago." Mr. Maleh remains an outspoken supporter of greater democracy in Syria - a passion that the arrests last year of some of his fellow advocates of sweeping political and economic reform has failed to dim. "We have many branches of mafia controlling the country, and they look after their own pockets. They don't care about politics." he says. "We are working to have a small window of freedom," adds Maleh, who once served a seven-year jail sentence. "We are not against the regime. No one in Syria believes it's possible to change the regime by force. We all want to change things through dialogue." But Syria's ruling clique appears to be in no mood to tolerate the extent of political reform demanded by Mr Maleh and others. While a bid to restructure the flagging economy inches forward, prospects for political liberalization have been effectively quashed following the crackdown last year on reformists. The crackdown - which saw the arrest of 10 reformist leaders and the end of political discussion forums - underlines the simmering struggle for control in Syria between a well-entrenched old guard and a new generation of reformers who take inspiration from the country's youthful president, Bashar al-Assad. A Damascus court held a second hearing yesterday in the trial of Riad Turk, leader of the banned Communist League. A critic of the regime who was imprisoned without charge between 1980 and 1998, Mr. Turk was arrested again last September during the crackdown and charged with trying to change the constitution by illegal means, incitement to armed sedition, and undermining patriotic sentiment and national morale. During the closed hearing, lawyers for Mr. Turk declared the court did not have legal jurisdiction to try the case and demanded an open trial. "There was a lot of hope before the crackdown. But the way it was conducted has depressed the country," says Farouk Homsi, the brother of reformist MP Maamoun Homsi, who was jailed last August for distributing a manifesto that called on the authorities to end corruption. The mood of quiet resignation here today is in marked contrast to the wave of optimism that engulfed Syria following the election of President Assad in June of 2000. …


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