Middle East

Syria prisoner releases begin under general amnesty

An image grab taken from a images released by the state-run Syrian news channel on June 10, 2014, reportedly shows prisoners being released from the Hama central prison under a general amnesty announced by President Bashar al-Assad. AFP PHOTO / SYRIAN TV

DAMASCUS: Syria has begun releasing prisoners from government jails under a general amnesty announced by President Bashar Assad, human rights lawyers said Tuesday.

Rights lawyers also said prominent prisoners of conscience, including journalist Mazen Darwish, were expected to be freed.

“Dozens of prisoners began to be released from Adra prison [in Damascus province] yesterday and the releases will continue today,” Anwar al-Bunni said, a day after the unprecedented wide-ranging amnesty was announced. “The anti-terrorism tribunal and criminal courts are sending lists of the prisoners to be released to the prisons, and security services are handling the lists of those to be released from their facilities.”

The releases came a day after Assad declared an unprecedented amnesty, extending for the first time to those accused under the country’s anti-terrorism legislation. State television aired images of prisoners being released from a prison in the city of Hama.

The government has dubbed all those opposed to Assad’s rule – armed opposition fighters and peaceful activists alike – of “terrorism,” and used the law to imprison high-profile dissidents.

The amnesty is also the first to offer clemency to foreign jihadists fighting for the opposition, as long as they hand themselves in within a month. Those who deserted from the army will be extended a full pardon if they hand themselves in within three months of the decree, according to the text.

But it was unclear how many prisoners might be freed under the amnesty, as previous clemency decisions have not seen large numbers of detainees released.

“It is still unclear who will benefit from the amnesty,” said Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

“This amnesty should not be yet another false promise, and the released should not be replaced by new activists being wrongfully imprisoned,” Houry told AFP.

Lawyer Michel Shammas meanwhile said it was unclear how the decree would apply for more than 50,000 people being detained in the country’s notorious security branches, where torture is systematic.

But he and Bunni said several prominent figures were expected to be freed under the amnesty.

“Mazen Darwish, Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir will be released, as will activist Laila Awad, psychologist Jamal Nawfal, and Raneem Maatouq, daughter of [jailed lawyer] Khalil Maatouq,” Shammas said.

“But there is no meaning for an amnesty if it doesn’t include all the detainees, and we don’t know yet how the decree will be applied for more than 50,000 people being held in security branches. ”Darwish, Ghreir and Zaitani were arrested in a raid on the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression where they work, in February 2012.

He and his colleagues face trial for activities “such as monitoring online news and publishing the names of the dead and disappeared.”

Assad issued the amnesty five days after he won another seven-year term in the country’s first multicandidate presidential vote.

Separately, a former international war crimes prosecutor said Assad tops a list of 20 sample war crimes indictments of government officials and rebels drafted by experts for prosecution someday.

The list has been handed to the International Criminal Court, citing for each incident a specific violation of the Rome statute under which a suspect could be charged, according to David Crane, an ex-chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and now head of the Syria Accountability Project.

A separate team of U.N. investigators has drawn up four confidential lists of war crime suspects on all sides in Syria, but declined to reveal any names.

Crane said the list compiled by his expert group included members of Syria’s military and political elite plus rival Al-Qaeda groups ISIS and the Nusra Front, although he gave no names beyond Assad.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 11, 2014, on page 1.




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