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2/24/04 - SYRIAN POLITICAL PRISONERS - 2004-02-20

Across the Middle East, more and more people are pushing for human rights and democratic rule. In Syria, more than one-thousand intellectuals signed a petition demanding that President Bashar Assad lift the state of emergency that has been used to justify repressive rule for four decades. The petition also calls for the release of all political prisoners and greater political freedoms in Syria. On January 31st, President Assad released nearly one-hundred-thirty political prisoners, but hundreds of others remain behind bars.

Former political prisoner Aktham Naisse says the petitioners hope to collect many more signatures to support the appeal for political reforms. They plan to present the petition to the Syrian government on March 8th, the forty-first anniversary of the 1963 announcement of the emergency law.

Hafez Assad ruled Syria from the mid-1960s until 2000. Opponents of his dictatorial rule were jailed and often tortured. When his son Bashar became president, there were hopes that repression would ease. Indeed, about six-hundred political prisoners were released in 2000. But no further large-scale releases occurred until last month.

Farhid Ghadry of the Reform Party of Syria says that Arabs, like other people, want democracy:

“To me, freedom of expression means the same thing in one country or another. Freedom of speech is the same. In a democracy, there is a rule of law, which means that everyone is treated equally.”

The U.S. is committed to helping people in the Middle East achieve freedom. The appeal of freedom, says President George W. Bush, “is universal”:

“Freedom is not America’s gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.”

It is not easy for people to establish democracy after living for decades with repression. But in the Middle East, that is exactly what more and more voices are demanding.