DAMASCUS // The early release of up to 40 Syrian prisoners, some of whom were jailed for belonging to banned political parties, does not signal a softening of Damascus's hard line on political dissidents, human rights campaigners say. Since the start of the month, 36 prisoners have been freed before completing their sentence, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent London-based watchdog.
Among those released was Hassan Zahra, of the Communist Labour Party. Previously jailed for political activity, he was re-arrested 10 months ago, reportedly after attending talks with fellow activists to establish a new Marxist organisation. Two members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in Syria, were also among those set free before completing the full term of their sentence. Under Syrian law, membership of the Muslim Brotherhood is a capital offence but conviction typically results in imprisonment.
No formal announcement has been made on the number of prisoners freed, or their identities, leaving human rights monitors in Syria to make rough estimates. The figure of 36 people is based on the fact they were transported from prison in a bus and two minibuses, with an approximate capacity of 40 people. With no details on which detainees have been freed, it is also impossible to say if all of them were incarcerated for political reasons, as has been reported. It is likely that some were serving jail terms for minor crimes.
The releases are the result of a decree by the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, who in February announced a general amnesty for those convicted of misdemeanours, youth offenders, army deserters and the elderly. Those suffering from fatal diseases are also allowed to apply for amnesty under the ruling. The possibility for release on health grounds had led to faint hopes from human rights groups that Riad Seif, a prominent dissident and leading symbol of the Damascus Spring reform movement, would be freed. The former MP and businessman, who has been jailed since January 2008, suffers from prostate cancer. Before his most recent arrest he had petitioned to be allowed to leave Syria for medical treatment but was refused permission.
According to Syria-based human rights monitors, Mr Seif did apply under the health clause of this latest amnesty for release, but was unsuccessful. Under the amnesty conditions, a health commission examines each prisoner's case with only those considered to be suffering from terminal illness technically qualifying for release. Mr Seif, who was previously incarcerated for five years before release in January 2006, is now due to complete his full sentence before the end of the summer. More than a dozen other jailed dissidents associated with political reform efforts are similarly due to complete their sentences soon.
"We of course welcome the release of any political prisoners, and look forward to further such releases in the future," said Ammar Qurabi, the head of the Platform for Syrian Non-Governmental Organisations. "This set of releases is standard, under the general amnesty, it is not limited to political prisoners and it does not indicate any wider change." Syria, together with other Arabs states, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, has come under heavy criticism for its human rights record from international watchdog groups.
Damascus insists all prisoners have been convicted by a court for breaking Syrian laws, and jealously defends it right to oversee its internal affairs free from outside interference. The Syrian authorities, which do not comment publicly on arrests, also maintain that many of the prisoners classified as political detainees by campaigners are Islamic extremists similar to al Qa'eda. Concerns over human rights issues have not prevented a quick rapprochement with Europe or moves towards diplomatic normalisation with the United States, which has announced that a new ambassador is to be dispatched to Syria.
There had been anticipation that the end of Damascus's diplomatic isolation from the West would bring with it an easing of suppression of pro-democracy advocates. Campaigners in Syria say that has not happened and, this month, Human Rights Watch said the West's rehabilitation has, in fact, undermined prospects for ending politically motivated detentions. In one of the most recent incidents to attract international condemnation, the lawyer and former judge Haitham al Maleh, 79, was arrested in October and is now standing trial in a military court on charges of "weakening national morale".
Mr al Maleh previously served six years as a political prisoner during the rule of the late president Hafez al Assad in the 1980s. email@example.com