Assad issues general amnesty after promising reforms

Pardon 2nd of its kind in 3 weeks; thousands turn out for pro-Assad rallies, 3 killed; Red Cross says regime agrees to give access to civilians.

By REUTERS
June 21, 2011 12:59
3 minute read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad

assad speech 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a general amnesty on Tuesday, a day after he promised wide-ranging but vague reforms to counter a three-month popular revolt against his autocratic rule.

Activists and analysts had dismissed Assad's promises on Monday, saying they failed to engage the demands of protesters who for three months have defied a fierce military crackdown in rallying for greater freedoms, posing the gravest challenge to his 11-year tenure.

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The pardon, the second of its kind in three weeks, includes anyone who committed crimes until June 20, the state news agency SANA said. After the first amnesty, Syrian authorities freed hundreds of political prisoners but rights groups say there are still thousands languishing in Syrian jails.

Assad said on Monday he would ask the Justice Ministry to look into issuing a wider amnesty because, according to meetings he held with local leaders, he "felt that the (first) amnesty was not satisfactory for many...and there is a desire that this (second) amnesty be more inclusive".

Rights groups say the crackdown against protesters has intensified since the first amnesty was announced on May 31 and hundreds of people have been arrested.

On Tuesday tens of thousands of Syrians turned out for pro-Assad rallies across the country in support of Assad's address in which he promised reforms that were immediately dismissed by protesters.

State television showed rallies in Aleppo, Damascus, and the southern city of Deraa, where protests against Assad first erupted in mid-March. People waved the country's tri-color flag, carried pictures of the president and flew red, white and black balloons in the air.

Witnesses in Deraa said security forces opened fire to disperse several thousand protesters in the city's old quarter.

They took to the streets in reaction to a pro-government rally in the Mahatta area which they said employees and army forces in civilian clothes had been ordered to attend.

Syrian security forces reportedly shot dead three people during clashes in two cities between Assad loyalists and protesters demanding his removal.

Activists said the three were killed by army and security forces when they intervened on the side of Assad's supporters in the cities of Homs and in the town of Mayadeen in Deir al-Zor province near the border with Iraq.

The Red Cross on Tuesday said that Syria has agreed to give the organization greater access to civilian populations and areas caught up in the conflict and is considering its request to visit people who have been arrested.

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said in a statement issued after two days of talks with senior Syrian officials in Damascus: "The discussions focused exclusively on humanitarian issues and were frank and operational."

"The Syrian officials were receptive, and agreed to give the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent wider access to areas of unrest," he said. "I will closely monitor how this understanding is put into practice."Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East

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