12/19/2007, 00.00
SYRIA
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Damascus cracks down again on domestic dissent

Human rights activists and regime opponents are arrested. Even online critics are detained. Social network website is shut down. After the Annapolis conference Assad seems bent on snuffing out all criticism. It shows he is in charge but is also a sign of weakness.

Damascus (AsiaNews/HRW) – The Syrian government is trying to crack down on every form of dissent against President Bashar al-Assad. Since 9 December more than 30 activists have been arrested. Most were interrogated and then released, but a few known opposition leaders have been in jail since last Friday.

Human Rights Watch on Monday appealed for the immediate release of Ahmad Tohme, Jabr al-Shoufi, Akram al-Bunni, Fida’ al-Hurani and Ali al-Abdallah, who are in prison without charges or explanations. Akram al-Bunni’s brother Walid was also later arrested. They all attended a meeting on 1 December that saw more than 160 people (Communists, Islamists, Kurds and former Ba‘athists who signed the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change) come together to call for an end to the existing state of emergency and respect for freedom of speech and political liberties.

Under the state of emergency (in place since 1963) all parties not subordinated to the ruling Ba‘ath party are illegal. But as a challenge to the government dissidents have set up a National Council with a president and an executive.

As part of the crackdown, government security forces also shut down last month the social network website Facebook, which had hosted a vibrant if virtual debate on Bashar al-Assad.

Analysts have noted that the crackdown comes in the wake of Syria’s participation in the Annapolis conference on peace in the Middle East, which was seen as a sign of a thaw in relations between Mr. Assad and the White House.

“This goes back to what we’ve always seen as a problem, that the opening with the West has never been contingent on Syria improving its human rights records,” said Nadim Houry, who tracks Syria for Human Rights Watch.

Ahed al-Hendi and Muhammad al-Abdallah, who participated in the 1 December meeting, have fled to Beirut.They are so weak they are afraid of an Internet cafe,” said Mr. Hendi.

Akram Bunni, a newspaper columnist and brother of an imprisoned human rights lawyer, was detained on 10 December. He wrote about the "moral bankruptcy" of Assad’s rule in the Arab press. “They’re concerned about public opinion,” he said, but “don’t want anyone [. . .] to see that there are public figures who might be an alternative to the regime.”

For other analysts though, “the opposition doesn’t pose a threat” to a regime which controls society and security forces.

Since becoming president in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has consolidated his hold on power, but in the beginning he loosened the tight controls that limited freedom of expression. But this year he has had people making allegedly “subversive comments” online thrown in jail.

“The Syrian government claims that it wants to engage with the outside world, but its only engagement with peaceful critics inside the country is with the boot of repression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Calling for democratic and peaceful change should not be treated as a criminal offence.”

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