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World Council for the Cedars Revolution

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Syria arrests dozens of political dissenters PDF Print E-mail
Written by IHT   
Thursday, 13 December 2007

Syria
Syria

By Thanassis Cambanis
Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Syrian authorities this week arrested more than 30 people who had been working for political change, escalating a crackdown on dissent just a week after critics elected a leadership committee in an unusually direct and public challenge to the authority of President Bashar al-Assad.

A majority of those arrested were questioned and released, dissidents and human rights advocates said. But three of the most outspoken opposition leaders remained in custody Thursday, and others had been summoned to state intelligence offices for questioning.

Last month, government security forces blocked access to the popular Web site Facebook, the host to a vibrant if virtual debate about the president. On Sunday, security agents began rounding up dozens of known dissidents who have met this fall to create a joint opposition front, acting much like a political party in a state that operates under emergency laws that ban any organization not connected with the government and ruling Baath Party.

The arrests occurred on the heels of Syria's participation in the Middle East peace conference at Annapolis, Maryland, which was perceived in the region as a diplomatic coup for Damascus and a sign of a thaw in tense relations between Assad and the White House.

Emboldened by a sense that Syria's hard-line anti-American policies in the region have paid dividends, human rights advocates say, the authorities in Damascus have turned their focus to shutting down the last remaining channels of public debate.

"This goes back to what we've always seen as a problem, that the opening with the West has never been contingent on Syria improving its human rights record," Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based researcher who tracks Syria for Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview this week. "It's contingent on Syria cooperating on Lebanon, Iraq and the peace process."

Dissidents and human rights advocates contend that the fact that a group of intellectuals with no political organization at its disposal, many of whose leaders are frail or incarcerated, still poses a threat is a sign that the regime itself is weak.

Akram Bunni, a newspaper columnist and brother of a well-known imprisoned human rights lawyer, was detained Tuesday; he has continued to write in Arab newspapers about the "moral bankruptcy" of Assad's rule.

"They're concerned about public opinion," Bunni said in a wide-ranging conversation at his home in Syria in October, before his arrest. "They don't want anyone, internationally or internally, to see that there are public figures who might be an alternative to the regime."

Activists in Syria said the ongoing crackdown was, paradoxically, a sign of strength as well as weakness - the regime has consolidated enough internal power to reestablish "red lines" limiting public criticism of the country's absolute leader.

Assad allowed a brief flowering of free expression and civil society activity when he assumed the presidency following his father's death in 2000. But over the years he has gradually tightened his control over the country's small political class, with arrests and new regulations. Over the last year, Syria's security services have cast a wider net, arresting not only seasoned political activists but also individuals who posted comments deemed subversive on Web sites.

Still, dissidents have continued to challenge the government, disobeying a ban on public meetings.

On Dec. 1, Riad Seif, a former businessman and member of Parliament and now an opposition spokesman, held a meeting at his home of more than 160 political activists who had signed the Damascus Declaration in October 2005, calling on the state to lift its repressive emergency laws and allow free speech and political organization, Syrian human rights activists said.

In a direct challenge to the regime, which prohibits independent political parties, the dissidents formed a body called The National Council, electing a president, Fidaa al-Hourani, and a five-member leadership committee, which includes Bunni.

The group spans the political spectrum, including Communists, Islamists, former Baathists, secular nationalists and Kurds.

A younger generation of activists, schooled on the Internet rather than the underground political organizations of the 1970s, has also spoken out, mostly on postings on opposition Web sites and on Facebook groups. Several have ended up in prison, and others, like Ahed al-Hendi and Mohammed al-Abdallah, have taken refuge in Beirut.

"They are afraid because people online meet together, share ideas, criticize the regime, do things they cannot do in reality," Hendi, 23, who was arrested for a month last year after posting critical reports to an opposition Web site, said in an interview last week in Beirut. "They are strong on one hand, but on another they are so weak they are afraid of an Internet café!"

Despite the contentions that the current crackdown stems from a sense of insecurity, some Syrian analysts and diplomats have said that the Assad regime has staved off a series of major crises and now feels strong enough to restore the limits that once cowed critics.

"States around us are collapsing and there's a high perception of danger, but Syria is deterring the dangers," a Syrian analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared government harassment said in an interview in Damascus in October. "The opposition doesn't pose a threat."

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