BEIRUT: Syria has freed after 21 years in prison a former horse rider known to have been an equestrian rival of one of President Bashar Assad’s late brothers, reports said Sunday.
The release of Adnan Qassar is part of a wide-reaching amnesty that Assad decreed last week, and has seen some 1,500 people freed from the war-ravaged country’s prisons, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“In 1993, Adnan Qassar was one of the top horse riders in Syria and the Arab world. He won a horse race against Bassel Assad,” who at the time was being groomed for the presidency, said Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman.
“Qassar was thrown in Seidnaya Prison [near Damascus] for his ‘crime,’” Abdel-Rahman said.
Aks Alser, an opposition activist website, also reported Qassar’s release, and said he had been accused of “possessing explosives, and of trying to assassinate Bassel Assad.” He was jailed “without trial,” it added.
A year later when Bassel Assad died in a traffic accident, “Qassar was dragged out of his cell to a public square, beaten and then thrown back in jail. It took them 21 years to release him,” Abdel-Rahman said.
The Assad clan has ruled Syria with an iron fist for over 40 years.
“Qassar was not a political activist. But in Syria, no one is allowed to be better at anything than the Assads,” Abdel-Rahman said.
So far, some 1,500 people have been set free from prisons across the country, most of them from Damascus, according to the Observatory.
State news agency SANA quoted local officials in several provinces as giving figures on the latest releases – 130 in Hama province and 37 in Homs province Sunday alone, while in Hassakeh province, a total of 65 people had been released.
The amnesty is unprecedented because it pledges pardon and reduces sentences for the jailed under Syria’s controversial 2012 anti-terror law, which has seen tens of thousands of people jailed over political charges.
The regime has systematically branded armed and unarmed dissidents, including journalists, of being “foreign-backed terrorists.”
“Some of those released so far are prisoners of conscience, others were in prison over criminal charges,” Abdel-Rahman said.
The number of the prisoners released so far pales in comparison to the estimated total of 100,000 people imprisoned, including some 50,000 held in security buildings dotted across the country.