Syria lifts emergency law, but moves to limit protests

Deadly clashes continue after announcement; US worried new legislation may be just as restrictive; Expert: Changes are merely cosmetic.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
April 19, 2011 18:32
4 minute read.
Protesters in Syrian city of Homs

Protesters in Syrian city of Homs 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

The Syrian government approved a draft law on Tuesday to lift 48 years of emergency rule – a concession to unprecedented demands for greater freedom in the tightly-controlled country.

At the same time, however, it passed legislation to “regulate the right of peaceful protest,” indicating that permission from the Interior Ministry would be needed to organize any demonstrations.

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Still, protests continued after the announcement that the emergency law would be lifted.

Demonstrators took to the streets in the northern city of Banias, and opposition leaders said they would not stop until their other demands – including the release of political prisoners, freedom of speech and a multi-party system – were also met.

The state news agency, SANA, said the cabinet ratified draft legislation, which must still be signed by President Bashar Assad, “to end the state of emergency in Syria.”

The cabinet, which has little power and rubber-stamps Assad’s orders, also passed a law to abolish a special security court, which human rights lawyers say violates the rule of law and the right to fair trial.

The United States is unsure that Syria’s draft law to lift emergency rule will be less restrictive, a State Department spokesman said on Tuesday.

“This new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced,” Mark Toner said. “The Syrian government needs to urgently implement broader reforms and... to cease violence against peaceful protesters.”

Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed in over a month of unrest.

Mordechai Kedar, a scholar at Bar- Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center and author of Assad In Search of Legitimacy, said lifting the emergency law was unlikely to augur substantive change.

“The problem isn’t the emergency law – the problem is the regime. They’ll probably just replace the emergency law with an anti-terror law, for example,” Kedar said. “This is too little, too late, and it’s not what the public wants. The public wants a normal state with normal elections, without a clique of apostates ruling their lives,” he said.

Assad and most of his inner circle are from Syria’s minority Alawite community, which adheres to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam considered heretical by most Sunnis.

“This is an entire system programmed to keep the regime in power,” Kedar said. “All of the Ba’ath Party’s slogans about Syrian and Arab nationalism are used to obscure the real issue – Alawite rule.”

Britain described the cabinet decision as a “step forward,” but said Assad “still has much more to do to meet the legitimate aspirations of the people of this country.”

“We repeat the call for deaths to be avoided, for people to have the right to peaceful protest, for deaths that have already occurred to be fully investigated,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News.

The cabinet decision came hours after activists said Syrian forces opened fire to disperse protesters in Homs, where 17 people were killed on Sunday night.

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Rights activists said at least three more protesters were killed in the latest shooting early on Tuesday. SANA reported that four people – two policemen and two gunmen – were killed in clashes in the city.

One activist dismissed the cabinet decision, saying Assad could have lifted emergency law immediately.

“The government doesn’t need to issue anything... It’s in the hands of the president to lift it,” Ammar Qurabi said.

“This [announcement] is all just talk. The protests won’t stop until all the demands are met or the regime is gone,” leading opposition figure Haitham Maleh, an 80-year-old former judge, told Reuters.

In a sign that authorities would offer no ground to protesters, the Interior Ministry on Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by “armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations” trying to terrorize the population. (Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam, which many Arab governments equate with terrorist groups like al-Qaida.) “Not Salafists, not the Muslim Brotherhood.

We are freedom-seekers,” hundreds of people chanted in Tuesday’s demonstration in Banias, in response to the Interior Ministry statement.

Dozens of medical students also demonstrated at Damascus University’s College of Medicine earlier on Tuesday, two rights campaigners in contact with the students said. They said security forces had beaten the students to break up the protest.

In Deraa, where the protests first broke out – and which has seen the most bloodshed – residents said security forces who stayed off the streets in recent days were being reinforced, possibly ahead of a move to reassert full control over the restive Sunni town.


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