Bashar Assad 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
A leading international rights group called on Syria on Tuesday to dissolve the country's security court, describing it as "one of Syria's main pillars of repression."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch also urged Washington and Europe to condition further ties with Damascus on the dissolution of the State Security Court, and on improving the country's human rights record.
The call comes as Syria is improving relations with some Western countries.
The European Union foreign policy chief was expected in Damascus on Tuesday and Syria's ambassador to Washington was to meet with State Department officials later this week - the first such meeting in months.
The Syrian court was established under a 1963 emergency laws and thousands of people, including activists, intellectuals and members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group have been tried and sentenced by the tribunal in the last 16 years.
Syrian rights groups have in the past called for dissolving the court. Its verdicts cannot be appealed.
The HRW said in a 73-page report that 237 people have been tried by the court between January 2007 and June 2008.
At least 153 defendants were prosecuted "on the basis of vague charges that criminalize freedom of expression," the report said. Among them, 10 were bloggers, 16 were Kurdish activists and eight citizens accused of "insulting the Syrian president" in private conversations, it said.
It also added that defendants were customarily held for months without being informed of charges against them, and that there were claims that security service had "tortured them to extract their confessions."
Sarah Leah Whitson, the HRW Middle East director said the court was a "kangaroo court providing judicial cover for the persecution of activists, and even ordinary citizens, by Syria's security agencies."
"Defendants have no chance of defending themselves, much less proving their innocence against the bogus charges brought against them," she said. "The State Security Court is one of Syria's main pillars of repression."
When Syrian President Bashar Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he released hundreds of political prisoners. But he later clamped down on pro-democracy activists, suggesting there were limits to the level of opposition he was prepared to tolerate.
Syria does not comment on security issues and says this is an internal affair.