Banned Rights Group Vows to Continue

Leading rights activist says decision to outlaw his organisation “entirely political”.

Banned Rights Group Vows to Continue

Leading rights activist says decision to outlaw his organisation “entirely political”.

Thursday, 16 April, 2009
There was sadness but little surprise in veteran human rights lawyer Haitham Maleh’s voice as he described a court decision in February that banned his advocacy organisation, the Human Rights Association of Syria, HRAS.

“It is clear that the regime does not want any kind of monitoring of human rights activities,” said Maleh, a former judge. He said the court’s decision was “entirely political”.

Denying the HRAS’s application to become a licensed organisation, the High Administrative Court in Damascus ruled that the group was an illegal entity and banned it from any kind of activity.

Under Syrian law, all civil society associations are required to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. The ministry has powers to intervene in the internal governance and day-to-day operations of organisations, by appointing board members and sending representatives to attend meetings.

Yet despite having rigorous control mechanisms in place, the Syrian authorities refuse to grant registration to any human rights group which applies for a license. Only a number of women’s and environmental organisations have successfully obtaining one.

A handful of human rights organisations exist without authorisation in Syria, including several concerned with the rights of the Kurdish minority.

A variety of advocacy organisations operate outside the country, including the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee, SHRC.

Working below the radar, HRAS has been tracking human rights abuses in Syria since it was founded in 2001. The group has documented violations including arrests of political rights activists, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, and restrictions on freedom of expression.

Its work has been heavily restricted.

“We have not been allowed to publish journals or brochures,” said Maleh. “In 2002, we had a magazine printed in Lebanon called Tayyarat, and as a consequence, we were subjected to enormous pressure. I was brought before a military tribunal because of this.”

The group now distributes its reports on the internet or by hand.

But posting statements online has become increasingly difficult since the regime began blocking access to the websites of advocacy groups, including the HRAS homepage.

Maleh said HRAS has faced a variety of legal hurdles since its inception, when it first applied for an official license to carry out its activities legally.

“We have never tried to get around the legal process by operating in the shadows,” he said. “We have always tried to conduct our business openly and have repeatedly sought government recognition.”

But the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has rejected these requests, citing technical and administrative reasons, including failure to pay a registration fee or to follow the exact procedures for submitting applications.

The February ruling of the High Administrative Court – the court of last resort in this case – came in response to an appeal filed by HRAS in 2007.

“Whatever the official justification, the underlying reason for these denials remains the continued suppression of any activity in the field of human rights,” said Maleh.

He pointed out that without a license to operate, human rights organisations were at risk of harassment and arrest.

“These groups have no real freedom because they know that at any moment, the government can come in and stop their activities,” he said.

The Association of Social Initiatives – an organisation fighting to improve the status of Syrian women – lost its license soon after obtaining it, when the group conducted a survey about violence against women in the Damascus countryside without seeking permission from the authorities.

As outlawed organisations, human rights groups are officially barred from holding meetings, renting office space and, most importantly, raising funds.

Maleh said members of his and other organisations also faced the constant threat of interrogation, had secret service officers routinely posted outside their homes, and were subject to travel bans.

During the past two years, the Syrian security services, according to am HRAS member of who asked to remain anonymous, have repeatedly obstructed the organisation’s activities.

Several planned events, including the last two annual board meetings, had to be cancelled after authorities raided the meeting places, he said.

Maleh said his office has been vandalised on two occasions, resulting in broken office furniture, missing paperwork and animal excrement smeared on the walls.

In a piece for the Kuwaiti newspaper Awan September, Wael al-Sawah, a Syrian analyst, noted the devastating effect that this kind of pressure has on the work of rights groups.

“Syrian activists often become preoccupied with their own security instead of with human rights issues,” he wrote. “This leads to disputes and disagreements within the human rights community. Meanwhile, the government looks on with satisfaction from the sidelines.”

Maleh and the other members of HRAS are not ready to give up.

He said that his group would apply for a new license under a different name.

“Nothing is going to change,” he said. “We were not working under favourable circumstances anyway, so we will simply continue.”
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