Strangling Human Rights in Syria

Posted on October 31, 2007


Source: Human Rights Watch

If you say you are a human rights activist to a security official, it is as if you are admitting you are a criminal.

–Syrian human rights activist, November 20061

The government of Syria severely constrains the freedom of human rights activists to express their views and to associate as a group. Under restrictive and arbitrary legal provisions, human rights groups are consistently refused registration and endure a precarious existence without legal status. Worse, state security services subject human rights activists to intrusive scrutiny and harassment that includes travel bans, arrest, and trial.

This report documents these restrictions by examining the legal environment in which activists operate and the government practices to which they are subject. It is based on extensive interviews with representatives of all of the major Syrian human rights groups, independent lawyers, and members of the international diplomatic community in Damascus.

Although the Syrian constitution protects the rights to freedom of association and expression, the government has used emergency powers and restrictive legislation, such as the 1958 Law on Associations and Private Societies (Law No. 93), to stifle the activists’ exercise of their most basic rights. The government has relied on these laws to override constitutional guarantees and to establish itself as the sole arbiter of with whom and how Syrians can associate.

Under the provisions of Law No. 93, the Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MoSAL) controls the registration of all civil society associations and has wide jurisdiction to intervene in the internal governance and day-to-day operations of any association. Associations must notify MoSAL of their meetings, and representatives of the ministry have the right to attend. In addition, MoSAL has the authority to regulate the ties of any local group with the international community, ensuring that local associations are severely restricted in their ability to finance their operations or seek advice, expertise, support, and cooperation from abroad.

The problem with Law No. 93 is not just the language of its provisions but also the arbitrary way in which the government applies its provisions. The only reliable factor to predict how strictly it will control a group is the extent to which the group’s work includes criticism of the government.

In addition to Law No. 93, Government authorities also rely on the continuing state of emergency to adopt arbitrary measures to silence their critics and to prohibit them from operating as a legally recognized group.

The outcome has been that Syrian authorities have refused to register any of the human rights groups that have applied for registration. Without legal status, these groups operate at the whim of the authorities and live in constant fear of being shut down at any moment and their members imprisoned for violating the law […]

Arrests and Trials

Syrian security agencies frequently arrest human rights activists for their peaceful activities. This trend has increased in 2006. Many security agencies are involved in these arrests: Political Security, Military Security, State Security, and to a lesser extent Air Force Security. Activists interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that there are no guidelines to determine which agency will get involved and noted that in some cases security agencies duplicated efforts.

Syrian security agencies frequently arrest activists following their return from trips overseas, apparently as a form of punishment for the activists’ discussion of Syrian human rights issues abroad. On March 12, 2006, Military Intelligence detained Dr. Ammar Qurabi, former spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights – Syria and one of the founders of the National Organization for Human Rights for four days upon his return from Washington DC and Paris, where he had attended two conferences on democratic reform and human rights in Syria.68

Security agencies have arrested other activists for their activities inside Syria. On March 22, 2006, security forces detained Muhammad Najati Tayyara, former vice-president of the Human Rights Association in Syria, for remarks he made at a ceremony on March 12 held to commemorate the second anniversary of clashes in March 2004 between Kurdish demonstrators and security forces in the northern city of Qamishli. Tayyara spent 24 hours detained in a filthy jail cell before being released.69 [more]

Please click here to read the whole report, “No room to breathe: State Repression of Human Rights Activism in Syria,” from Human Rights Watch.