Syria offers amnesty, opposition remains dubious

Speaking in Lebanon, UN chief says "old order" of Arab dynasties ending: "The path of repression is a dead end."

January 15, 2012 10:23
Bank Ki-Moon at Beirut news conference

Bank Ki-Moon at Beirut news conference 311 R. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Syria’s Bashar Assad granted amnesty Sunday for crimes committed since the outbreak of a 10-month-old uprising against his rule, state news agency SANA reported.

Opponents of the Syrian president said the amnesty was meaningless because most detainees were held without charge in secret police or military facilities with no due process or legal documentation.

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Assad has issued several amnesties since the start of protests, including one announced as recently as November 4, but opposition groups say thousands of people remain behind bars and many have been tortured or abused.

Also Sunday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Assad to halt the violence, saying the “old order” of dynasties and one-man rule in the Arab world was coming to an end.

SANA said the amnesty for “crimes committed in the context of the events that occurred from March 15, 2011, until January 15, 2012,” would run to the end of January for army deserters and people who possessed illegal arms or who violated laws on peaceful protest.

The regime-linked Addounia television station said Arab League monitors discussed the amnesty with Damascus police on Sunday.

The amnesty was announced days before the monitors, who began work December 26, are due to report to the League on whether Syria is complying with an Arab League peace plan. Arab foreign ministers will meet January 22 to discuss the mission’s findings.

Under the plan, Syria’s government agreed to free detainees, as well as to halt the bloodshed, withdraw the military from the streets and start a dialogue with the opposition.

Assad’s critics derided the amnesty as a sham.

“The problem is not those who have reached trial or have been sentenced to terms in civic jails but those who are imprisoned and we don’t know where they are or anything about them,” said Kamal Labwani, who was freed last month after six years as a political prisoner and is now in Jordan.

The Avaaz advocacy group said on December 22 that at least 69,000 people had been detained since the start of the uprising, of whom 32,000 had been released.

The government announcement came as the head of the UN delivered a stinging rebuke to Damascus’ continuing crackdown. “Today, I say again to President Assad of Syria: Stop the violence. Stop killing your people. The path of repression is a dead end,” Ban told a conference in Lebanon on political reform.

“From the very beginning of the... revolutions, from Tunisia through Egypt and beyond, I called on leaders to listen to their people,” Ban said. “Some did, and benefited. Others did not, and today they are reaping the whirlwind.

“One-man rule and the perpetuation of family dynasties, monopolies of wealth and power, the silencing of the media, the deprivation of fundamental freedoms... To all of this, the people say: Enough,” Ban said.

But he also said the transition to democracy in the region would be hard and drawn out, requiring genuine reform, inclusive dialogue, a proper role for women and a solution for millions of young people seeking work. In the short term, he said, the instability created by the uprisings had exacerbated economic difficulties. Unemployment is rising, along with food and fuel prices, while commerce has suffered.

“Meanwhile, old elites remain entrenched. The levers of coercion remain in their hands,” Ban said. “We have reached a sober moment.”

Where authoritarian rulers had been toppled, he said, there was no guarantee that their successors would uphold human rights.

“The new regimes must not elevate certain religious or ethnic communities at the expense of others,” Ban said in apparent reference to fears that newly empowered Sunni Islamist movements could marginalize minorities.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague questioned whether Sunday’s amnesty offer was genuine.

“The Syrian government has had a habit of announcing amnesties and then making it impossible to verify whether they have really been implemented,” he told Sky News television.

The UN says more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria’s crackdown on protests which erupted in March.

Mazen Adi, a veteran Syrian activist who spent two months in jail last year during the uprising, said Assad only wanted “to appear to adhere to the demands of the Arab League.” He said the decree excludes some charges under which anti-Assad activists have been jailed, such as “belonging to a secret society with the purpose of toppling the governing system.” Adi said more people were being detained every day and there was no guarantee that arrests of peaceful protesters would stop.

“You still have no right to demonstrate peacefully in Syria. Nothing prevents another wave of arrests of demonstrators who will be again held indefinitely,” he said.

“Huge numbers of detainees are in secret police headquarters and complexes. The problem is not a judicial or legal issue because those detainees spend months before they are referred to the courts,” Adi said.

On Sunday an Arab League representative said the bloc had not received any official request or suggestion to send Arab troops to Syria.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, said on Saturday that Arab troops may have to step in to halt the bloodshed in Syria since the start of protests in March.

“There is no official suggestion to send Arab troops to Syria at the current time...

There has been no Arab or a non-Arab agreement on a military intervention in Syria for the time being,” the representative said.

There is little appetite in the West for any Libya-style intervention in Syria, although France has talked of a need to set up zones to protect civilians there.

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