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Human Rights Groups Fear Financial Scrutiny

Syrian human rights organisations are afraid to accept funding from foreign governments or other organisations which Damascus may consider hostile, local activists say. Some of these groups keep detailed financial records to prove they do not have international connections.

Syrian law prohibits organisations from receiving funds that determined to be from sources “hostile to Syria”, and all funding of civil society organisations must be approved by the Syrian government.

Even though the vast majority of civil society organisations in Syria are unlicensed – raising the question as to whether their finances can legally be investigated – many still fear financial scrutiny by the government.

The security services summoned the leaders of at least five leading Syrian human rights organisations in 2006 and investigated their sources of support. According to Ammar al-Qurabi, chair of the National Organisation for Human Rights, NOHR,

those investigations occurred after the US Department of State issued a report indicating that it had given grants to non-governmental organisations in Syria,

NOHR was one of the organisations investigated, he added.

No activist or organisation has officially been charged with taking foreign funding, but fear of being caught in a crackdown persists.

Writer Michel Kilo was arrested in May 2006 shortly after signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration which called for Syria to alter its policies toward Lebanon. Pro-government media accused him of taking money from foreign organisations, but was never charged. In May 2007, however, Kilo was sentenced to three years in prison for “weakening national sentiment”.

Anwar al-Bunni, a top Syrian human rights lawyer, was also arrested in May 2006 after signing the same declaration.

Three months earlier, he had opened his Centre for the Development of Civil Society and announced that it was supported by a 93,000 euro (110,000 US dollar) grant from the European Union.

In April 2007, Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison for “spreading false or exaggerated news” and joining an illegal political group. He was not charged with taking money from a foreign organisation, but was fined 2,000 dollars for operating his centre without a license.

Nidhal Darwish, a board member of the Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights Defence Committee in Syria, said that back in 2004, the organisation decided in principle to accept foreign funding. But it has not done so to date for fear of falling foul of the government.

Lawyer Haitham al-Malih, former head of the Syrian Association for Human Rights, said foreign groups had offered the organisation “huge sums”, but it turned the money down because it wanted to remain “clean and untainted”.

“Most [human] rights organisations will not say they have a lot of funding, and some that do receive foreign money conceal their source of funding,” said Muhannad al-Hasani, president of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights.

Licensed civil society groups are allowed to receive foreign funding, which is then closely monitored and controlled by the government. But civil society organisations involved in political activities have not been granted licenses since 1963, when Syria adopted the emergency law. Some groups are tolerated by the government but are always at risk of a clampdown.

By law, an organisation is considered to have legal status if the ministry of social affairs and labour does not respond to its application within two months. Some groups that applied for licenses and never received responses claim they are therefore legal, by default law. But because they are not licensed, the government regards them illegal, exposing them to risk.

Yet if these organisations are illegal, the ministry of social affairs and labour cannot technically audit them, as doing so would imply recognition, according to Emad Abu al-Iz, director of social services at the ministry.

Still, human rights organisations fear being closed down and their leaders arrested because they do not have the right permissions from the government. If their leaders were arrested for receiving foreign funding, the actual charge would most likely be one of many related to running an illegal organisation, according to a Damascus-based human rights lawyer. The penalties could range from three years to life in prison, he added.

Malih said such organisations usually say they have only a small amount of funding so as not to attract the authorities’ attention, and try to avoid questions being asked about the issue even by their own members.

A Syrian security official, who spoke on the customary condition of anonymity, said leaders of human rights groups had admitted to taking foreign funding while under investigation. He did not give further details.

The official accused human rights groups of engaging in “gracious fraud”.

The security forces “fear that some of those working in the field of [human] rights steal the donations and endowments given to them and dishonouring Syria”, he said.

The source also said the security services believe that human rights groups “execute projects that serve the agendas of states and bodies that are foreign and hostile to Syria under the label of [human] rights work”.

Because they are unlicensed and fear taking foreign funding, some organisations say they have difficulty in hiring staff as well as researching, publishing and distributing reports.

But beyond the legal concerns, there is a sense of pride among members some groups that insist they are not under foreign influence and will not accept funds from abroad.

If an organisation admitted accepting foreign cash, “that would destroy their reputation and remove their credibility”, said one Damascus-based human rights advocate and lawyer.

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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