• Reports
  • November 3, 2005
  • 4 minutes read

Syria’s Assad pardons 190 political prisoners

Syria’s Assad pardons 190 political prisoners
Source: Reuters
 By Suleiman al-Khalidi

DAMASCUS, (Reuters) – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday pardoned 190 political prisoners in a step widely seen as aiming at broader internal reforms to deflect U.S. pressure, rights groups and officials said.

The measure, which the state news agency SANA said was meant to “fortify national unity,” comes as Assad faces mounting international pressure after a U.N resolution ordering Damascus to cooperate with an international inquiry into the killing of a former Lebanese prime minister or face unspecified action.

The authorities said more gestures were expected in coming weeks that could free hundreds of other political prisoners, announce a new law that allows political parties and further ease the 42-year old emergency laws that rights groups say have stifled reforms and led to arbitrary crackdowns.

“There are steps to be taken in coming weeks to include the release of other detainees and other moves towards speeding political reforms,” a government source told Reuters.

Both Syria’s opposition and independent figures have clamoured for faster reforms in recent weeks, saying they can deflect U.S.-led pressure after a U.N. probe said there was “converging evidence” of Syrian and Lebanese involvement in the Feb. 14 killing of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Damascus has denied any role in the killing and says the report is politicised.

An outcry over Hariri’s death forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in April after 29 years.


Rights groups said most of the released prisoners were Islamist members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom have spent over two decades in prison, along with over 50 Syrian Kurds accused of taking part in riots and clashes with police in 2004 after a soccer match brawl.

Syria, ruled for decades by the Baath Party has tolerated little political dissent. In the early 1980s, Syria crushed an Islamist revolt which led to the death or imprisonment of thousands and drove the Muslim Brotherhood into exile.

Assad has released hundreds of political prisoners since assuming power in 2000 but human rights activists say Syrian authorities are holding thousands of detainees under emergency law in force since 1963.

“This move gains the government more popularity and consolidates national unity in the face of the dangers facing Syria,” Ammar Qurabi of the dissident Arab Organisation of Human Rights in Syria told Reuters.

Qurabi identified two of the prisoners freed under Wednesday’s pardon as Ali Abdullah, detained in May for reading a statement by the London-based leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohammad Radoon, head of the Arab Organisation of Human Rights in Syria, arrested earlier this year.

But officials dismissed the possibility that among the released are Maamoun al-Homsi and Raid Seif — two former deputies sentenced to five years in prison in 2002 for violating the constitution.

Qurabi said there were “positive indications” that the authorities could be about to release the bulk of an estimated 1,500 detainees, mostly long-serving Islamists and some Kurdish activists, whose cases were documented by the rights group.

Islamist deputy Mohammad Habash echoed views of moderate politicians who said these moves herald broader public freedoms.

“This means there is responsiveness to the demands of the street and the authorities are finally turning their attention to pushing ahead political reforms,” Habash said.

Assad introduced a measure of political freedom in Syria after succeeding his late father Hafez al-Assad, but critics say authorities have since cracked down again on dissidents.