November 2, 2005

Assad pardons 190 political prisoners

By Suleiman al-Khalidi

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on
Wednesday pardoned 190 political prisoners in a step widely
seen as aiming at broader internal reforms to deflect U.S.
pressure, rights groups and officials said.

The measure, which the state news agency SANA said was
meant to "fortify national unity," comes as Assad faces
mounting international pressure after a U.N resolution ordering
Damascus to cooperate with an international inquiry into the
killing of a former Lebanese prime minister or face unspecified

The authorities said more gestures were expected in coming
weeks that could free hundreds of other political prisoners,
announce a new law that allows political parties and further
ease the 42-year old emergency laws that rights groups say have
stifled reforms and led to arbitrary crackdowns.

"There are steps to be taken in coming weeks to include the
release of other detainees and other moves toward speeding
political reforms," a government source told Reuters.

Both Syria's opposition and independent figures have
clamored for faster reforms in recent weeks, saying they can
deflect U.S.-led pressure after a U.N. probe said there was
"converging evidence" of Syrian and Lebanese involvement in the
February 14 killing of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik

Damascus has denied any role in the killing and says the
report is politicized.

An outcry over Hariri's death forced Syria to withdraw its
troops from Lebanon in April after 29 years.


Rights groups said most of the released prisoners were
Islamist members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom
have spent over two decades in prison, along with over 50
Syrian Kurds accused of taking part in riots and clashes with
police in 2004 after a soccer match brawl.

Syria, ruled for decades by the Baath Party has tolerated
little political dissent. In the early 1980s, Syria crushed an
Islamist revolt which led to the death or imprisonment of
thousands and drove the Muslim Brotherhood into exile.

Assad has released hundreds of political prisoners since
assuming power in 2000 but human rights activists say Syrian
authorities are holding thousands of detainees under emergency
law in force since 1963.

"This move gains the government more popularity and
consolidates national unity in the face of the dangers facing
Syria," Ammar Qurabi of the dissident Arab Organization of
Human Rights in Syria told Reuters.

Qurabi identified two of the prisoners freed under
Wednesday's pardon as Ali Abdullah, detained in May for reading
a statement by the London-based leader of the banned Muslim
Brotherhood, and Mohammad Radoon, head of the Arab Organization
of Human Rights in Syria, arrested earlier this year.

But officials dismissed the possibility that among the
released are Maamoun al-Homsi and Raid Seif -- two former
deputies sentenced to five years in prison in 2002 for
violating the constitution.

Qurabi said there were "positive indications" that the
authorities could be about to release the bulk of an estimated
1,500 detainees, mostly long-serving Islamists and some Kurdish
activists, whose cases were documented by the rights group.

Islamist deputy Mohammad Habash echoed views of moderate
politicians who said these moves herald broader public

"This means there is responsiveness to the demands of the
street and the authorities are finally turning their attention
to pushing ahead political reforms," Habash said.

Assad introduced a measure of political freedom in Syria
after succeeding his late father Hafez al-Assad, but critics
say authorities have since cracked down again on dissidents.