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Syrian Regime Tightens Grip on Dissenters

Critics say crackdown under way as human rights group leader held.
By IWPR
Syrian civil rights groups say the arrest of a prominent human rights advocate is a worrying sign that the authorities are increasing pressure on civil society.



Mohannad al-Hassani, the head of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, was arrested by the state security services on July 28 after being summoned for interrogations a third time.



Two days later, Hassani, who is one of the most active lawyers representing political prisoners in the country, was accused by the judiciary of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false news”, which are charges commonly used by Syrian authorities against dissidents and human rights activists.



London-based Amnesty International called for the immediate release of Hassani, asserting that he was imprisoned because of “his legitimate human rights work”.



New York-based Human Rights Watch made similar comments. “It is Syria’s repressive practices, not Hassani, that’s weakening national sentiment,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organisation’s Middle East and North Africa director. “President Assad should order Hassani’s release, along with freeing other Syrian activists who are paying a steep price just for exercising their basic civil rights.”



There has been official statement on the arrest of Hassani and officials contacted by IWPR declined to comment. His supporters say he is being held in Adra prison in Damascus.



Critics say the latest arrest is evidence that Syrian officials are not ready to loosen their grip on civil society despite the recent western overtures towards Damascus.



In the last week alone, Kurdish activist Shamseldin Hamo, a member of an opposition Kurdish party, was arrested, the Damascus offices of a private Gulf-based TV station, Orient TV, were shut down, and an issue of a magazine, Shabablek, was prevented from being distributed, according to human rights sources.



Human rights activists fear that even the narrow margin of liberty still open to them will soon be closed, said one advocate who asked to remain anonymous.



He said Hassani was doing useful work observing trials at the Supreme State Security Court, SSSC, which is a special court that exists outside the ordinary criminal justice system to try those perceived as endangering the regime.



In February, Human Rights Watch called in an extensive report for the abolition of the court which it said had convicted hundreds of prisoners of conscience in recent years.



The advocate said that it was worrying that Hassani had been jailed now after monitoring the court for many years.



He said that authorities were planning to suppress the few remaining active voices that are critical of the regime and that security services constantly try to obstruct the work of human rights organisations and intimidate them.



Many other human rights activists remain behind bars in Syria, including the prominent advocate, Anwar al-Buni, who is serving a five-year sentence on similar charges to those levelled against Hassani.



Dozens of activists are barred from travelling abroad and are regularly questioned by security officials.



"Every activist is walking through a minefield and doesn’t know when one will go off,” said Mustafa Osso, a lawyer who heads the Kurdish Organisation for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights.



Osso said that activists in Syria were not allowed freedom of movement.



He said there had been an escalation in detentions and other arbitrary procedures against dissidents since 2007 in Syria although arrests of activists have never stopped since the declaration of the state of emergency in 1963, when the Baath regime took power.



The allegations of a fresh wave of repression follow a report that a security officer known for his leading role in the surveillance of civil society has been promoted.



Last month, the website All4Syria reported that several changes in the leadership of security services had taken place recently, focusing on Zuhair al-Hamad, who was elevated to the second rank of the state security intelligence.



"Hamad was responsible for observing and questioning the majority of the opponents and civil society members during the last few years,” said a political analyst who asked that his name not be published because of the sensitivity of the issue.



“His promotion means that authorities are planning to extend their crackdown on the opposition,” added the analyst.



Others argued, however, that the recent reshuffle did not signify any change in the government’s policy towards dissidents because decision-making in matters related to security was still highly centralised and so any action needed approval from the top.



Many civil rights groups had hoped that the recent rapprochement between Damascus and western states would put pressure on the Syrian regime to relax its repression of freedom of expression.



Some, however, blame western officials – especially Americans – for stressing the importance of Syria’s regional role while overlooking human rights issues.



“The foreign openness towards Syria encourages the authorities somehow to impose more repression against Syrian citizens,” said one political activist on condition of anonymity.



According to writer and political activist Ehsan Taleb, the relationship between the regime and the Syrian people is still based on “the idea of confrontation and not of participation”.



“Authority sees citizens as a threat to its existence, so it always deals with them as defendants or suspects until they are proved to be innocent,” he said.

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