BEIRUT

Middle East

Thousands in Assad’s jails belie amnesty

File - Men are freed from the central jail in the Syrian city of Homs on June 13, 2014 after Syria begun releasing prisoners, many of whom were held without charge, under the broadest amnesty the country has seen since the Assad clan took power nearly 50 years ago. AFP PHOTO/STR

BEIRUT: Syrian President Bashar Assad decreed an amnesty last month but for tens of thousands of prisoners, among them high-profile dissidents, the promise of freedom is a fraud.

Yara Bader, 29, has been desperately waiting for word on her husband Mazen Darwish, a journalist and activist detained since February 2012.

Her hopes that Assad’s amnesty might lead to Darwish’s release are fading, as she continues to wage an uphill struggle against despair.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we have suffered,” Bader told AFP.

“The amnesty gave me real hope they would be freed within hours, but they are still in jail a month on, and it is impossible to know what will happen next.”

Her husband was arrested with two other prominent political prisoners – blogger Hussein Ghreir and activist Hani Zeitani.

They have been held since a February 2012 raid on the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus.

Bader says she fears new charges may be brought against the three to prolong their detention despite the much publicized amnesty pledge by the president.

“The wait just gets harder every day,” she said.

“It’s a reality we have to face that, in spite of all our hopes, they may not be freed any time soon after all.”

Human rights groups say some 100,000 people have been detained since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011, which escalated into an armed rebellion after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown.

Another 50,000 are believed to be held by the regime’s myriad of military intelligence branches.

June 9, after securing a new term in a controversial election held in government-controlled areas only, Assad issued an amnesty that should have freed tens of thousands of prisoners.

Crucially, many of those detained under the anti-terror legislation the regime has used to lock up its opponents, armed or not, should have been set free.

But lawyers say less than 1,500 people have been released, very few of them political activists or other civilians caught up in raids.

Lama Fakih, researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Syrian government’s failure to release people, and their continuing to hold them in horrific conditions is something that should be condemned.”

She told AFP: “It appears the amnesty was issued in a bid to gain legitimacy. Praise is not due.”

Fakih added: “With some exceptions, it appears mainly those who were released had been held for non-political reasons. The important thing to remember is that these people should not have been detained to begin with.”

Syrian human rights activist Sema Nassar said Assad’s amnesty promise was a “fraud.”

“It’s absurd that the decree got so much attention, considering how small the numbers have been in comparison to those still held,” she said.

“Take the instance of [opposition bastion] Daraya, near Damascus. Some 3,000 people from that town alone are currently in jail, all over accusations connected to the uprising. Only 20 of them, including one woman, have been released in the past month.”

Many of those released were rebel commanders or soldiers who were suspected of wanting to defect from the army.

“This is not an amnesty, it’s a military operation. The amnesty was an incentive for fighters to hand over their weapons and to stop battling the government,” Nassar said.

Of the better known dissidents in jail, only a handful, including veteran regime critic Jalal Nawfal and young activist Hazem Waked, have been freed.

“Meanwhile, the raids and arbitrary arrest campaigns have by no means stopped, nor have torture and other violations,” Nassar said.

Wednesday, activists reported the death under torture in a Damascus jail of Mohammad Zreik, who was in his early 20s.

Zreik was picked up some 18 months ago for his non-violent political and humanitarian activism, according to his friend Fares Ahmed, reached via the Internet.

“Many people loved him. He used to help people escape when the security forces stormed protests,” said Ahmad.

Earlier this year, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the “routine” use of torture in Syrian prisons.

Torture in times of conflict constitutes a “war crime,” and its systematic use may amount to a “crime against humanity,” Pillay said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2014, on page 8.

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Summary

Syrian President Bashar Assad decreed an amnesty last month but for tens of thousands of prisoners, among them high-profile dissidents, the promise of freedom is a fraud.

Yara Bader, 29, has been desperately waiting for word on her husband Mazen Darwish, a journalist and activist detained since February 2012 .

Her hopes that Assad's amnesty might lead to Darwish's release are fading, as she continues to wage an uphill struggle against despair.

Human rights groups say some 100,000 people have been detained since the uprising against Assad's rule erupted in March 2011, which escalated into an armed rebellion after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown.

June 9, after securing a new term in a controversial election held in government-controlled areas only, Assad issued an amnesty that should have freed tens of thousands of prisoners.

Syrian human rights activist Sema Nassar said Assad's amnesty promise was a "fraud".


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