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3/16/04 - SYRIAN ARRESTS - 2004-03-17

Like millions of other people across the Middle East, Syrians want freedom. On March 8th in Damascus, a group of Syrians expressed their feelings in a rare public demonstration. The occasion was the forty-first anniversary of Syria’s emergency law, which has been used since 1963 as an excuse for denying fundamental rights.

Syrian police quickly broke up the demonstration and arrested about two dozen people. Those arrested included a U.S. official, one of a group of foreign diplomats observing the protest. The official was released after about an hour.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the detention of diplomats is a “clear violation” of international law:

“It is not acceptable. The Department of State in Washington has been in contact with the Syrian ambassador in [Washington] D-C to protest this incident and to express concern about Syrian actions against those peacefully demonstrating their freedom of expression.”

The Syrian people have much to demonstrate about -- if only they were allowed to do so. According to the U.S. State Department’s latest survey, the Syrian government’s human rights record remains poor. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. And even after the release of more than one-hundred political prisoners in January, hundreds more remain in jail for trying to exercise fundamental rights. Other serious abuses include torture by Syrian security forces and unfair trials in security courts.

Those arrested in Damascus are far from alone in pushing for human rights in Syria. Activists say that some seven-thousand Syrians have signed a petition demanding an end to the state of emergency, the release of all political prisoners, and political freedom.

The appeal of freedom is universal, says President George W. Bush. It is “God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” That is why, in Syria and throughout the Middle East, freedom, democracy, and human rights are what more and more voices are demanding.