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8/10/04 - SYRIA’S POLITICAL PRISONERS - 2004-08-11

The Syrian government has reportedly released dozens of political prisoners. The releases came in connection with the fourth anniversary of the rule of Bashar Assad. He took office in July 2000, about a month after the death of his father, longtime Syrian dictator Hafez Assad.

When Bashar Assad became president, hopes were high that government repression would ease in Syria. Indeed, hundreds of political prisoners were released, and some restrictions on freedom of expression were lifted. But this “Damascus Spring,” as some Syrian activists called it, was short-lived. Government officials soon began to crack down on free discussion and make new arrests.

Nonetheless, many Syrians have continued to take the risk of pushing for reform. Earlier this year, thousands of people signed a petition demanding the repeal of the 1963 emergency law, which is used to deny fundamental rights to Syrians. On March 8th, the forty-first anniversary of the law, a group of Syrians held a rare demonstration in Damascus. Police broke it up and briefly detained several demonstrators.

One of the organizers of the demonstration who was initially detained was former political prisoner Aktham Naisse, head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria. “Sooner or later,” he said, “our hopes and aspirations will be fulfilled.” But only days later, Aktham Naisse was jailed again. He was arrested after his group released a report on Syria’s abysmal human rights record. Mr. Naisse has reportedly had a stroke while in custody. But like some two-thousand other Syrians, he remains a political prisoner.

The U.S. supports the aspirations of all people for freedom and democracy. President George W. Bush says that a newly sovereign Iraq is pointing the way toward greater political freedom in other countries, including Iran and Syria:

“The rise of Iraqi democracy is bringing hope to reformers across the Middle East, and sending a very different message to Tehran and Damascus. A free and sovereign Iraq is a decisive defeat for extremists and terrorists -- because their hateful ideology will lose its appeal in a free and tolerant and successful country.”

For millions of people in the Middle East, says President Bush, “freedom has been denied too long.”