Syria may end emergency law, frees detained activists
Syria has released all activists detained in “recent events,” state media reported yesterday after an adviser to President Bashar al-Assad announced a string of reforms in response to protests.
“Under a directive by President Bashar al-Assad, all those detained in recent events have been freed,” state television reported.
The news comes hours after Buthaina Shaaban said the ruling Baath party had agreed to study the possibility of lifting the emergency law, which has been in place since 1963.
Syria has witnessed unprecedented protests demanding major reforms, mainly in the southern city of Daraa, a mainly Sunni tribal city 120 kilometres south of Damascus, where activists have reported more than 100 people killed in clashes with security forces on Wednesday alone.
Rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned what they say are mass arrests at the protests, which began in Damascus on March 15.
“I am happy to announce to you the decisions made today by the Arab Baath party under the auspices of President Bashar al-Assad... which include... studying the possibility of lifting the emergency law and licensing political parties,” the President’s media adviser Buthaina Shaaban told a news conference.
President Bashar al-Assad also issued a decree yesterday raising state employees’ wages by 20 to 30 per cent, state news agency Sana reported.
Ms Shaaban, who described the Syrian people’s demands as “just,” earlier yesterday had said 10 people were killed in the city of Daraa, hub of one week of protests against Assad’s Baath party which has ruled for nearly five decades.
Ms Shaaban said Assad had chaired a meeting of the ruling Alawite-controlled Baath party during which decisions taken included guaranteeing security for the people and forming a committee to discuss with Daraa residents the events of the past week and sanction those responsible. “Every decision that is being made has taken into account the people of Daraa,” she said.
“There are some demands and we will respond to these demands. Some of it will be very quickly. Some of it might take time and discussions.
“If there is a legitimate demand by the people then the authorities will take it seriously, but if somebody wants to just cause trouble then it is a different story,” she warned.
Daraa itself resembled a ghost town late yesterday with all shops and schools closed as thousands of soldiers and anti-terrorism units patrolled the streets. Entrances to the city remained sealed off, with vehicles granted access having to negotiate separate checkpoints manned by armed plain-clothes forces.
The city’s Omari mosque, where protesters had been holed up for a week, was also void of protesters, an AFP photographer reported.
Syria is the latest state in the Middle East to witness an uprising against a long-running autocratic regime.
The emergency law, put in place when Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad rose to power, has banned demonstrations since 1963. The small yet unprecedented protests, which began on March 15 in Damascus, have mainly been restricted to Daraa, where people have been demanding greater freedom in a country renowned for its iron grip on security.
Some authorities in Daraa have said the demonstrators were Salafists, an austere branch of Sunni Islam.
Activists have accused security forces of using live rounds against demonstrators in Daraa, where a doctor who had taken cover in an ambulance and an 11-year-old girl were reportedly among the victims.
The report could not be independently confirmed, but AFP reporters witnessed sporadic shooting in the town on Wednesday.
Reports of mass arrests in Syria have also surfaced this month, with rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urging the government to cease its crackdown on the protests.
“We are deeply disturbed by reports of multiple deaths in Daraa, with security forces firing at protesters and people coming to the aid of the injured with apparent disregard for human life,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The Syrian authorities’ res-ponse to dissent has been swift and brutal. They must ensure security forces immediately halt use of excessive force and allow peaceful protesters to assemble and demonstrate freely.”