Archaeologists have demonstrated that Syria was the center of one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 B.C. The city of Ebla alone during that time had a population estimated at 260,000. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be the oldest Semitic language.
Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, and, in part, Crusaders before finally coming under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.
Damascus, settled about 2500 B.C., is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It came under Muslim rule in A.D. 636. Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak, and it became the capital of the Omayyad Empire, which extended from Spain to India from A.D. 661 to A.D. 750, when the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad, Iraq.
Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mameluke Empire around 1260. It was largely destroyed in 1400 by Tamerlane, the Mongol conqueror, who removed many of its craftsmen to Samarkand. Rebuilt, it continued to serve as a capital until 1516. In 1517, it fell under Ottoman rule. The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840.
In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under King Faysal of the Hashemite family, who later became King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the battle of Maysalun. French troops occupied Syria later that year after the League of Nations put Syria under French mandate. With the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that had been formed during the mandate.
Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence of April 17, 1946, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s was marked by upheaval. A series of military coups, begun in 1949, undermined civilian rule and led to army colonel Adib Shishakli's seizure of power in 1951. After the overthrow of President Shishakli in a 1954 coup, continued political maneuvering supported by competing factions in the military eventually brought Arab nationalist and socialist elements to power.
Syria's political instability during the years after the 1954 coup, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies, and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis created support in Syria for union with Egypt. On February 1, 1958, the two countries merged to create the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political parties ceased overt activities.
The union was not a success, however. Following a military coup on September 28, 1961, Syria seceded, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic. Instability characterized the next 18 months, with various coups culminating on March 8, 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.
The Ba'ath takeover in Syria followed a Ba'ath coup in Iraq the previous month. The new Syrian Government explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and Ba'ath--controlled Iraq. An agreement was concluded in Cairo on April 17, 1963, for a referendum on unity to be held in September 1963. However, serious disagreements among the parties soon developed, and the tripartite federation failed to materialize. Thereafter, the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq began to work for bilateral unity. These plans foundered in November 1963, when the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was overthrown. In May 1964, President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC promulgated a provisional constitution providing for a National Council of the Revolution (NCR), an appointed legislature composed of representatives of mass organizations--labor, peasant, and professional unions--a presidential council, in which executive power was vested, and a cabinet. On February 23, 1966, a group of army officers carried out a successful, intra-party coup, imprisoned President Hafiz, dissolved the cabinet and the NCR, abrogated the provisional constitution, and designated a regionalist, civilian Ba'ath government. The coup leaders described it as a "rectification" of Ba'ath Party principles. The defeat of the Syrians and Egyptians in the June 1967 war with Israel weakened the radical socialist regime established by the 1966 coup.
Conflict developed between a moderate military wing and a more extremist civilian wing of the Ba'ath Party. The 1970 retreat of Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO during the "Black September" hostilities with Jordan reflected this political disagreement within the ruling Ba'ath leadership. On November 13, 1970, Minister of Defense Hafiz al-Asad effected a bloodless military coup, ousting the civilian party leadership and assuming the role of prime minister.
Upon assuming power, Hafiz al-Asad moved quickly to create an organizational infrastructure for his government and to consolidate control. The Provisional Regional Command of Asad's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party nominated a 173-member legislature, the People's Council, in which the Ba'ath Party took 87 seats. The remaining seats were divided among "popular organizations" and other minor parties. In March 1971, the party held its regional congress and elected a new 21-member Regional Command headed by Asad. In the same month, a national referendum was held to confirm Asad as President for a 7-year term. In March 1972, to broaden the base of his government, Asad formed the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties led by the Ba'ath Party, and elections were held to establish local councils in each of Syria's 14 governorates. In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People's Council, the first such elections since 1962.
The authoritarian regime was not without its critics, though most were quickly dealt with. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, however, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who reject the basic values of the secular Ba'ath program and object to rule by the Alawis, whom they consider heretical. From 1976 until its suppression in 1982, the arch-conservative Muslim Brotherhood led an armed insurgency against the regime. In response to an attempted uprising by the brotherhood in February 1982, the government crushed the fundamentalist opposition centered in the city of Hama, leveling parts of the city with artillery fire and causing many thousands of dead and wounded. Since then, public manifestations of anti-regime activity have been very limited.
Syria's 1990 participation in the U.S.-led multinational coalition aligned against Saddam Hussein marked a dramatic watershed in Syria's relations both with other Arab states and with the West. Syria participated in the multilateral Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct, face-to-face negotiations with Israel. These negotiations failed, and there have been no further Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafiz Al-Asad's meeting with then President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.
Hafiz Al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Al-Asad's death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 years old, which allowed his son, Bashar Al-Asad legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'ath party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar Al-Asad was elected President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian government statistics.
Syria's predominantly statist economy has been growing slower than its 2.5% annual population growth rate, causing a persistent decline in per capita GDP. President Bashar AL-ASAD has made little progress on the economic front after one year in office, but does appear willing to permit a gradual strengthening of the private sector. His most obvious accomplishment to this end was the recent passage of legislation allowing private banks to operate in Syria, although a private banking sector will take years and further government cooperation to develop. ASAD's recent cabinet reshuffle may improve his chances of implementing further growth-oriented policies, although external factors such as the international war on terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and downturn in oil prices could weaken the foreign investment and government revenues Syria needs to flourish. A long-run economic constraint is the pressure on water supplies caused by rapid population growth, industrial expansion, and increased water pollution.
Islam, in addition to being a system of religious beliefs and practices, is an all-encompassing way of life. Muslims believe that Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the rules governing proper life of man and society; therefore, it is incumbent upon the individual to live in the manner prescribed by the revealed law and upon the community to build the perfect human society on earth according to holy injunctions. Ideally, life for a Muslim should take place within a religious community. As a consequence, in Muslim countries religion has an importance in daily life far greater than it has in the West.
The Prophet enjoined his followers to convert the infidel to the true faith. However, he specifically exempted, the "people of the book," Christians and Jews, whose religions he recognized as forming the historical basis of Islam; these peoples were to be permitted to continue their religious observances unimpeded so long as they recognized the temporal rule of Muslim authorities, paid their taxes, and did not proselytize or otherwise interfere with the practice of Islam.
The Ottoman Empire organized the society of present-day Syria around the millet, or autonomous religious community. The non-Muslim people of the book living under Muslim occupation were called dhimmis. They paid taxes to the government and, in return, were permitted to govern themselves according to their own religious law in matters that did not concern Muslims. The religious communities were therefore able to preserve a large measure of identity and autonomy. Under the Mandate, the French continued this system, tending to favor the Christians.
In matters of personal status, such as birth, marriage, and inheritance, the Christian, Jewish, and Druze minorities follow their own legal systems. All other groups, in such matters, come under the jurisdiction of the Muslim code.
Although the faiths theoretically enjoy equal legal status, to some extent Islam is favored. Despite guarantees of religious freedom, some observers maintain that the conditions of the nonMuslim minorities have been steadily deteriorating, especially since the June 1967 War. An instance of this deterioration was the nationalization of over 300 Christian schools, together with approximately 75 private Muslim schools, in the autumn of 1967. Since the early 1960s, heavy emigration of Christians has been noted;in fact, some authorities state that at least 50 percent of the 600,000 people who left during the decade ending in 1968 were Christians. Many Christians remaining in the country, fearing that they were viewed with suspicion, have attempted to demonstrate their loyalty to and solidarity with the state.
Membership in a religious community is ordinarily determined by birth. Because statistics on the size of the various religious communities were unavailable in 1987, only rough estimates may be made. Muslims were estimated as constituting 85 percent of the population, although their proportion was possibly greater and was certainly growing. The Muslim birthrate reportedly was higher than that of the minorities, and proportionately fewer Muslims were emigrating abroad. Of the Muslims, 80 to 85 percent were members of the Sunni sect, some 13 to 15 percent were Alawis, and approximately 1 percent were Ismailis; other Shia groups constituted less than 1 percent of the population.
A striking feature of religious life in Syria is the geographic distribution of the religious minorities. Most Christians live in Damascus and Aleppo, although significant numbers live in Al Hasakah Province in northeastern Syria. Nearly 90 percent of the Alawis, also known as Nusayris, live in Al Ladhiqiyah Province in the rural areas of the Jabal an Nusayriyah; they constitute over 80 percent of the rural population of the province. The Jabal al Arab, a rugged and mountainous region in the southwest of the country, is more than 90 percent Druze inhabited; some 120 villages are exclusively so. The Imamis, a Shia sect, are concentrated between Homs and Aleppo; they constitute nearly 15 percent of Hamah Province. The Ismailis are concentrated in the Salamiyah region of Hamah Province; approximately 10,000 more inhabit the mountains of Al Ladhiqiyah Province. Most of the remaining Shia live in the region of Aleppo. The Jewish community is also centered in the Aleppo area, as are the Yazidis, many of whom inhabit the Jabal Siman and about half of whom live in the vicinity of Amuda in the Jazirah.
In addition to the beliefs taught by the organized religions, many people believe strongly in powers of good and evil and in the efficacy of local saints. The former beliefs are especially marked among the beduin, who use amulets, charms, and incantations as protective devices against the evil power of jinns (spirits) and the evil eye. Belief in saints is widespread among nonbeduin populations. Most villages contain a saint's shrine, often the grave of a local person considered to have led a particularly exemplary life. Believers, especially women, visit these shrines to pray for help, good fortune, and protection. Although the identification of the individual with his religious community is strong, belief in saints is not limited to one religious group. Persons routinely revere saints who were members of other religious communities and, in many cases, members of various faiths pray at the same shrine.
Unorthodox religious beliefs of this kind are probably more common among women than men. Because they are excluded by the social separation of the sexes from much of the formal religious life of the community, women attempt to meet their own spiritual needs through informal and unorthodox religious beliefs and practices, which are passed on from generation to generation.
Religion permeates life in all but the most sophisticated social groups. The Syrian tends to view religion instrumentally, depending on the deity and subsidiary powers to aid in times of trouble, solve problems, and assure success. The expressions bismallah (in the name of Allah) and inshallah (if Allah is willing) are commonly heard, expressing the individual's literal dependence on divine powers for his well-being.
INCIDENCE OF CRIME
The crime rate in Syria is low compared to industrialized countries. An analysis was done using INTERPOL data for Syria. For purpose of comparison, data were drawn for the seven offenses used to compute the United States FBI's index of crime. Index offenses include murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. The combined total of these offenses constitutes the Index used for trend calculation purposes. Syria will be compared with Japan (country with a low crime rate) and USA (country with a high crime rate). According to the INTERPOL data, for murder, the rate in 1999 was 0.95 per 100,000 population for Syria, 1.10 for Japan, and 5.51 for USA. For rape, the rate in 1999 was 0.29 for Syria, compared with 1.78 for Japan and 32.05 for USA. For robbery, the rate in 1999 was 0.07 for Syria, 4.08 for Japan, and 144.92 for USA. For aggravated assault, the rate in 1999 was 0.06 for Syria, 23.78 for Japan, and 323.62 for USA. For burglary, the rate in 1999 was 15.58 for Syria, 233.60 for Japan, and 728.42 for USA. The rate of larceny for 1999 was 9.32 for Syria, 1401.26 for Japan, and 2475.27 for USA. The rate for motor vehicle theft in 1999 was 2.69 for Syria, compared with 44.28 for Japan and 414.17 for USA. The rate for all index offenses combined was 28.96 for Syria, compared with 1709.88 for Japan and 4123.97 for USA.
TRENDS IN CRIME
Between 1995 and 1999, according to INTERPOL data, the rate of murder decreased from 1.09 to 0.95 per 100,000 population, a decrease of 12.8 %. The rate for rape decreased from 0.71 to 0.29, a decrease of 59.2 %. The rate of robbery decreased from 0.26 to 0.07, a decrease of 73.1 %. The rate for aggravated assault decreased from 4.19 to 0.06, a decrease of 98.6 %. The rate for burglary decreased from 17.80 to 15.58, a decrease of 12.5 %. The rate of larceny increased from 3.38 to 9.32, an increase of 175.7 %. The rate of motor vehicle theft decreased from 2.82 to 2.69, a decrease of 4.6 %. The rate of total index offenses decreased from 30.25 to 28.96 a decrease of 4.3 %.
Since independence, Syria's police and internal security apparatus have undergone repeated reorganization and personnel changes, reflecting the security demands of each succeeding regime. During the relative political stability of the 1970s and 1980s, police and security services were credited with having grown and become professional, but in 1987 only the bare outlines of their institutional makeup were known.
The largest intelligence-gathering and internal security organization was the National Security Directorate, employing about 25,000 personnel. Other security organizations were under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior. These organizations included a national police force, responsible for routine police duties. It incorporated the 8,000-man Gendarmerie, which had originally been organized by the French Mandate authorities to police rural areas. During the 1960s, the civil police forces were believed to have been used extensively to combat internal security threats to the government, but during the 1970s and 1980s these forces assumed a more conventional civil police role; this change in role coincided with increased professionalization and the parallel development of an effective and pervasive internal security apparatus. Nevertheless, the police continued to receive training in such functions as crowd and riot control.
In 1987 the internal security apparatus consisted of myriad organizations with overlapping missions to gather intelligence concerning internal security and to engage in activities (largely covert) to apprehend and neutralize opponents of the regime. According to Amnesty International, there were several security force networks in Syria. Each had its own branches, detention cells, and interrogation centers, located throughout the country, and each also had its own intelligence service. Each organization was directly responsible to the president and his closest advisers. The organizations operated independently with no clear boundaries to their areas of jurisdiction and no coordination among them. For example, although the civilian security police dealt with internal security matters, the responsibilities of Military Intelligence headed by General Ali Duba were not limited to matters affecting the armed forces, but also included internal security. In the mid-1980s, Western sources reported that the power and pervasiveness of Syria's internal security apparatus inspired fear among the Syrian population.
The powerful role of the security services in government, which extends beyond strictly security matters, stems in part from the state of emergency that has been in place almost continuously since 1963. The Government justifies martial law because of the state of war with Israel and past threats from terrorist groups. Syrian Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence are military agencies, while General Security, State Security, and Political Security come under the purview of the Ministry of Interior. The branches of the security services operate independently of each other and outside the legal system. Their members commit serious human rights abuses.
There were no reports of political killings or other killings committed by government forces during the year 2001.
There were no new confirmed reports of politically motivated disappearances during the year 2001. Because security forces often do not provide detainees' families with information regarding their welfare or location, many persons who disappeared in past years are believed to be in long-term detention or to have died while in detention; it appears that the number of new disappearances declined in recent years, although this circumstance may be due to the Government's success in deterring opposition political activity rather than a loosening of the criteria for detention.
Despite the existence of constitutional provisions and several Penal Code penalties for abusers, there was credible evidence that security forces continued to use torture, although to a lesser extent than in previous years. Former prisoners and detainees report that torture methods include administering electrical shocks; pulling out fingernails; forcing objects into the rectum; beating, sometimes while the victim is suspended from the ceiling; hyperextending the spine; and using a chair that bends backwards to asphyxiate the victim or fracture the victim's spine. In September Amnesty International published a report claiming that authorities at Tadmur Prison regularly torture prisoners, or force prisoners to torture one another. Although torture occurs in prisons, torture is most likely to occur while detainees are being held at one of the many detention centers run by the various security services throughout the country, and particularly while the authorities are attempting to extract a confession or information regarding an alleged crime or alleged accomplices.
Arbitrary arrest and detention are significant problems. The Emergency Law, which authorizes the Government to conduct preventive arrests, overrides Penal Code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention, including the need to obtain warrants. Officials contend that the Emergency Law is applied only in narrowly defined cases, and in January the regional press reported that the Information Minister claimed that the authorities had frozen "martial law," and the Interior Ministry claimed that the Government had made no arbitrary arrests since April 2000. Nonetheless, in cases involving political or national security offenses, arrests often are carried out in secret, and suspects may be detained incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge or trial and are denied the right to a judicial determination regarding the pretrial detention. Some of these practices are prohibited by the state of emergency, but the authorities are not held to these strictures. Additionally, those suspected of political or national security offenses also may be arrested and prosecuted under ambiguous and broad articles of the Penal Code, and subsequently tried in either the criminal or security courts.
The Government detains relatives of detainees or of fugitives in order to obtain confessions or the fugitive's surrender. The Government also threatens families or friends of detainees, at times with the threat of expulsion, to ensure their silence, to force them to publicly disavow their relatives, or to force detainees into compliance.
Defendants in civil and criminal trials have the right to bail hearings and the possible release from detention on their own recognizance. There is no bail option for those accused of state security offenses. Unlike defendants in regular criminal and civil cases, security detainees do not have access to lawyers prior to or during questioning.
Detainees have no legal redress for false arrest. Security forces often do not provide detainees' families with information regarding their welfare or location while in detention. Consequently many persons who have disappeared in past years are believed to be in long-term detention without charge or possibly to have died in detention. Many detainees brought to trial have been held incommunicado for years, and their trials often have been unfair. There were reliable reports that the Government did not notify foreign governments when their citizens were arrested or detained.
Pretrial detention may be lengthy, even in cases not involving political or national security offenses. The criminal justice system is backlogged. Many criminal suspects are held in pretrial detention for months and may have their trials extended for additional months. Lengthy pretrial detention and drawn-out court proceedings are caused by a shortage of available courts and the absence of legal provisions for a speedy trial or plea bargaining.
On May 6 the Government released prominent political prisoner Nizar Nayyuf, who had been imprisoned since 1992 on a 10-year sentence after being convicted for founding an unlawful organization, disseminating false information, and undermining the Government. Human rights organizations noted that authorities placed him under house arrest immediately following his release. In June the Government allowed Nayyuf to leave the country for medical treatment. According to public statements by his lawyer, in September Nayyuf was summoned to appear before an investigating court to respond to a complaint against him filed by Ba'th party lawyers for "inciting confessionalism, attempting to illegally change the Constitution, and publishing false reports abroad." Nayyuf was still out of the country when the summons was issued and had not returned to the country by year's end. The French free press organization Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres--RSF) claimed that the Government harassed and intimidated members of Nayyuf's family following the issuance of the summons. The Government reportedly fired two members of his immediate family from their jobs. The municipality threatened to expel members of Nayyuf's family if they did not publicly disavow his statements.
On August 9, the Government arrested independent Member of Parliament Ma'mun Humsi during his hunger strike protesting official corruption, the excessive powers of the security forces, and the continuation of the Emergency Law. In a departure from previous practice, the Interior Ministry issued a statement justifying Humsi's arrest under Penal Code articles dealing with crimes against state security.
On September 1, the Government detained prominent political activist and prior longtime detainee Riad al-Turk for violations of Penal Code articles dealing with crimes against state security, after al-Turk made derogatory public comments about late President Hafiz al-Asad.
On September 6, the Government detained independent Member of Parliament Riad Seif shortly after Seif resumed the activities of his unlicensed political discussion forum. The principal charge against both Humsi and Seif was attempting illegally to change the Constitution.
Later in September, the Government detained seven additional prominent human rights activists who had issued statements in support of Humsi, Seif, and al-Turk. The Government reportedly charged the seven activists under Penal Code articles dealing with crimes against state security. Although all of the detainees reportedly were arrested for Penal Code violations, only Humsi and Seif are being tried in criminal court, with the other cases reportedly to be tried in the Supreme State Security Court. Their trial has been open to foreign observers and the press.
The Government reportedly had released most of the hundreds of Turkomen detained without charge in 1996; however, the group's leaders reportedly remained in detention.
There were reports of large-scale arrests of Syrian and Palestinian Islamists between late December 1999 and February 2000. Hundreds of persons allegedly were arrested in the cities of Damascus, Hama, Aleppo, and Homs. Most of those arrested reportedly were released after signing an agreement not to participate in political activities; however, some may remain in detention. There were no known reports that the Government arrested Islamists on political charges during the year 2001.
There were reliable reports that security forces arrested several minors on unspecified political charges in 2000. The minors reportedly were held in adult facilities for 6 months, had no access to legal counsel, and were not allowed visits from family members. There were no reports of the arrests of minors on political charges during the year 2001.
In December 2000, the Government detained an individual for several months without charge for forwarding via e-mail an allegedly lewd political cartoon.
According to a credible report, in March Syrian intelligence officials in Lebanon arrested three Syrian Druze men who had converted to Christianity, possibly on suspicion of membership in Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Jordanian press reported in January the release from Syrian jails of six Jordanian prisoners of Palestinian origin, who had been imprisoned for membership in Palestinian organizations. There were unconfirmed reports that a large number of Jordanian prisoners were released between May and July 2000. However, according to Amnesty International, only three of the Jordanians released in 2000 had been held for political reasons.
There were unconfirmed regional press reports that approximately 500 political detainees were moved from Tadmur Prison to Saydnaya Prison in late July and early August in preparation for the eventual closing of Tadmur. The Government also closed the Mazzah prison in November 2000, which reportedly held numerous political prisoners and detainees.
In May 2000, there were media reports that Communist Action Party leaders Aslan 'Abd Al-Karim and Fateh Jamous and oppositionist Randa Ayoubi were released from prison. In August 2000, Sheikh Hashim Minqara, a leader of the Islamic Tawheed Movement who was arrested in Lebanon in 1985, reportedly was released.
In November 2000, the Government declared an amnesty for 600 political prisoners and detainees and a general pardon for some nonpolitical prisoners. The amnesty was covered in the media and reportedly was the first time that the Government acknowledged that it held persons for political reasons. There were credible but unconfirmed reports that the 600 detainees, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Salvation Party, the Communist Action Party, and some Kurds, had all been released by the end of 2000.
In December 2000, the Government transferred 54 Lebanese political prisoners and detainees from Syrian to Lebanese custody. A prisoner amnesty announced in July 1999 is believed to have benefited some political prisoners and detainees. While the total number of those released is unknown, Amnesty International identified six prisoners held for political reasons who were released. Unconfirmed reports suggest that as many as 600 prisoners were released. Some former prisoners reportedly were required to sign loyalty oaths or admissions of guilt as a condition of their release. Most of those arrested during crackdowns in the 1980's, in response to violent attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood, have been released; however, some may remain in prolonged detention without charge. Some union and professional association officials detained in 1980 may remain in detention.
The number of remaining political detainees is unknown. In June 2000, prior to the November 2000 prison amnesty, Amnesty International estimated that there were approximately 1,500 political detainees in the country; many of the detainees reportedly are suspected supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba'th party. There also are Jordanian, Lebanese, and Palestinian political detainees. Estimates of detainees are difficult to confirm because the Government does not verify publicly the number of detentions without charge, the release of detainees or amnestied prisoners, or whether detainees subsequently are sentenced to prison.
In October 1998, the Jordanian Government requested that the Syrian Government account for 429 named Jordanian nationals, 239 of whom Jordan claims have been missing since they entered Syria, and 190 of whom Jordan claims are imprisoned in Syria. By year's end there had been no published official response.
Former prisoners are subject to a so-called "rights ban," which begins from the day of sentencing and lasts until 7 years after the expiration of the sentence, in the case of felony convictions. Persons subject to this ban are not allowed to vote, run for office, or work in the public sector; they often also are denied passports.
The Government has exiled citizens in the past, although the practice is prohibited by the Constitution. The Government refuses to reissue the passports of citizens who fled the country in the 1980's; such citizens consequently are unable to return to the country.
There were no known instances of forced exile during the year 2001.
In the 1980s, the Syrian judicial system remained a synthesis of Ottoman, French, and Islamic laws. The civil, commercial, and criminal codes in effect were, with some amendments, those promulgated in 1949 and were based primarily on French legal practices. In addition, special provisions sanctioned limited application of customary law among beduin and religious minorities. Islamic religious courts based on sharia (Muslim law) continued to function in some parts of the country, but their jurisdiction was limited to issues of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, paternity, custody of children, and inheritance. In 1955 a personal code pertaining to many aspects of personal status was developed. This law modified and modernized sharia by improving the status of women and clarifying the laws of inheritance.
The High Judicial Council is composed of senior civil judges and is charged with the appointment, transfer, and dismissal of judges. Article 131 of the Constitution states that the independence of the judiciary is to be guaranteed by the president in his role as chairman of the High Judicial Council. Article 133 stipulates that judges be autonomous and subject to no authority other than the law. Although the concept of an independent judiciary is enshrined in the Constitution, the president clearly exercises considerable power in the execution, as well as the formulation, of law.
In 1987 Syria had a three-tiered court system, in addition to the state security courts. The Court of Cassation, sitting in Damascus, was the supreme court and the highest court of appeals. It had the authority to resolve both jurisdictional and judicial issues. Below the Court of Cassation were courts of appeal, and at the lowest level were courts of first instance, designated variously as magistrate courts, summary courts, and peace courts. Also at the basic level were juvenile and other special courts and an administrative tribunal known as the Council of State. Under the 1973 Constitution, the High Constitutional Court was established to adjudicate electoral disputes, to rule on the constitutionality of a law or decree challenged by the president or People's Council, and to render opinions on the constitutionality of bills, decrees, and regulations when requested to do so by the president. The High Constitutional Court is forbidden, however, to question the validity of the popularly approved "laws submitted by the President of the Republic to popular referendums." The court consists of the president and four judges he appoints to serve a renewable term of four years.
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the two exceptional courts dealing with cases of alleged national security violations are not independent of executive branch control. The regular court system generally displays considerable independence in civil cases, although political connections and bribery at times influence verdicts.
The judicial system is composed of the civil and criminal courts, military courts, security courts, and religious courts, which adjudicate matters of personal status such as divorce and inheritance. The Court of Cassation is the highest court of appeal. The Supreme Constitutional Court is empowered to rule on the constitutionality of laws and decrees; it does not hear appeals.
Civil and criminal courts are organized under the Ministry of Justice. Defendants before these courts are entitled to the legal representation of their choice; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents. Defendants are presumed innocent; they are allowed to present evidence and to confront their accusers. Trials are public, except for those involving juveniles or sex offenses. Defendants may appeal their verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. Such appeals are difficult to win because the courts do not provide verbatim transcripts of cases--only summaries prepared by the presiding judges. There are no juries.
Military courts have the authority to try civilians as well as military personnel. The venue for a civilian defendant is decided by a military prosecutor. There were continuing reports that the Government operates military field courts in locations outside established courtrooms. Such courts reportedly observe fewer of the formal procedures of regular military courts.
The two security courts are the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), which tries political and national security cases, and the Economic Security Court (ESC), which tries cases involving financial crimes. Both courts operate under the state of emergency, not ordinary law, and do not observe constitutional provisions safeguarding defendants' rights.
Charges against defendants in the SSSC often are vague. Many defendants appear to be tried for exercising normal political rights, such as free speech. For example, the Emergency Law authorizes the prosecution of anyone "opposing the goals of the revolution," "shaking the confidence of the masses in the aims of the revolution," or attempting to "change the economic or social structure of the State." Nonetheless the Government contends that the SSSC tries only persons who have sought to use violence against the State.
Under SSSC procedures, defendants are not present during the preliminary or investigative phase of the trial, during which the prosecutor presents evidence. Trials usually are closed to the public. Lawyers are not ensured access to their clients before the trial and are excluded from the court during their client's initial interrogation by the prosecutor. Lawyers submit written defense pleas rather than oral presentations. The State's case often is based on confessions, and defendants have not been allowed to argue in court that their confessions were coerced. There is no known instance in which the court ordered a medical examination for a defendant who claimed that he was tortured. The SSSC reportedly has acquitted some defendants, but the Government does not provide any statistics regarding the conviction rate. Defendants do not have the right to appeal verdicts, but sentences are reviewed by the Minister of Interior, who may ratify, nullify, or alter them. The President also may intervene in the review process.
Accurate information regarding the number of cases heard by the SSSC is difficult to obtain, although hundreds of cases are believed to pass through the court annually. Many reportedly involved charges relating to membership in various banned political groups, including the Party of Communist Action and the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba'th Party. Sentences as long as 15 years have been imposed in the past. The Government permitted delegates from Amnesty International to attend a session of the SSSC in 1997; however there have been no visits by human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) since then.
The trials of independent Members of Parliament Mamun Humsi and Riyad Seif began on October 30 and 31, respectively. The trials were held in a criminal court and, for the first time, were open to diplomats and the regional press. The eight other activists who were arrested during the year 2001 still were awaiting trial before the SSSC at year's end.
The ESC tries persons for alleged violations of foreign exchange laws and other economic crimes. The prosecution of economic crimes is not applied uniformly, and some government officials or businesspersons with close connections to the Government likely have violated the country's strict economic laws without prosecution. Like the SSSC, the ESC does not ensure due process for defendants. Defendants are not provided adequate access to lawyers to prepare their defenses, and the State's case usually is based on confessions. Verdicts may be influenced by high-ranking government officials. Those convicted of the most serious economic crimes do not have the right of appeal, but those convicted of lesser crimes may appeal to the Court of Cassation. A significant prisoner amnesty for individuals convicted of economic crimes was announced in July 1999. This amnesty may have benefited thousands of persons. In May 2000, late-President Hafiz Al-Asad amended the Economic Penal Code to allow defendants in economic courts to be released on bail. The bail provision does not extend to those accused of forgery, counterfeiting, or auto theft; however, the amendment is intended to provide relief for those accused of other economic crimes, many of whom have been in pretrial detention for long periods of time. These amendments to the Economic Penal Code also limit the categories of cases that can be tried in the ESC. In November the Government approved a general pardon for nonpolitical prisoners and a reduction of sentences by one-third for persons convicted of economic crimes, with a provision to commute sentences entirely for persons who return embezzled funds to investors within 1 year of the law's effective date.
Prisoner amnesties in July 1999 and November 2000 are believed to have benefited some political prisoners and detainees. The Government also transferred 54 Lebanese political prisoners and detainees from Syrian to Lebanese custody in December.
The Government has released virtually all of those arrested at the time late-President Asad took power in 1970. However, at least two persons arrested during that period may remain in prison, despite the expiration of one of the prisoners' sentences.
The Government in the past denied that it held political prisoners, arguing that, although the aims of some prisoners may be political, their activities, including subversion, were criminal. The official media reported that the 600 beneficiaries of the November 2000 amnesty were political prisoners and detainees; this reportedly was the first time that the Government acknowledged that it held persons for political reasons. Nonetheless, the Emergency Law and the Penal Code are so broad and vague, and the Government's power so sweeping, that many persons were convicted and are in prison for the mere expression of political opposition to the Government. The Government's August and September detentions of 10 prominent civil society and human rights activists for "crimes of state security" illustrated the Penal Code's broad scope and represented a retreat from recent modest attempts at political liberalization.
The exact number of political prisoners is unknown. Unconfirmed regional press reports estimated the total number of political prisoners at between 400 and 600. In April a domestic human rights organization estimated the number to be "nearly 800," including approximately 130 belonging to the Islamic Liberation Party, 250 members and activists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, 150 members of the pro-Iraq wing of the Ba'th Party, and 14 Communists.
Data published in the government's Statistical Abstract do not lend themselves to a realistic analysis of Syria's crime problems. The total number of persons reported to have been convicted in penal cases rose steadily from about 56,000 in 1952 to nearly 275,000 in 1969, and then dropped dramatically to about 165,000 in 1971, at which level it remained through 1975, apparently reflecting Assad's loosening of pre-1970 police controls.
The 1985 statistics, the most recent statistics available in early 1987, cited a total of 187,944 convictions of Syrian nationals in penal cases. Nearly three-fourths of these convictions were for crimes and contraventions neither mentioned in the penal code nor further identified. Of the other convictions, the largest category was for "crimes against religion and family" (not further defined). Other frequent crimes were acts endangering or causing loss of life, robbery, insolence, and crimes against public security.
A rapid increase in crimes against religion and family was the only trend discernible in the data for the 1970-85 period. The figures for the number of convictions in nineteen other classifications of crime remained stable. Accounts of crimes committed in Syria published in Western publications were limited to crimes against state security, such as assassinations and bombings, and to such crimes as bribery and embezzlement as exposed by the Committee for the Investigation of Illegal Profits. The latter committee was set up by the government in September 1977 to investigate a reported growth in corruption by government officials and business leaders.
In 1986 petty offenses were tried in magistrate courts, also called peace courts, found in all population centers. Courts of the first instance, located in twenty-four major urban areas, tried more serious crimes and acted as courts of appeal from the magistrate courts. The courts of appeal heard appeals from both lower courts. Juveniles, defined as those between the ages of seven and eighteen, were tried in separate juvenile courts.
The Court of Cassation acted as Syria's supreme court. Located in Damascus, it reviewed appeal cases to determine if the lower courts had applied the law correctly. If an error were found, the case was sent back for retrial to the court of original jurisdiction.
The judicial system and constitutional rights to some extent were abrogated and superseded by martial law imposed when the National Revolutionary Command Council invoked Syria's State of Emergency Law on March 8, 1963. By early 1987 Assad had not repealed this condition. The State of Emergency Law provided for the selection by the president of a martial law governor (the prime minister) and a deputy martial law governor (the minister of the interior). Article 4 of the State of Emergency Law empowered the martial law governor or his deputy to issue written orders to impose restrictions on freedom of individuals with respect to meetings, residence, and travel. It sanctioned preventive arrest, censorship, withdrawal of licenses for firearms, evacuation or isolation of areas, and the requisitioning or sequestration of movable property, real estate, and companies, with compensation to be deferred indefinitely.
Article 6 of the State of Emergency Law defined as violations of martial law "offenses against the security of the state and public order, or public authority, and actions which disturb public confidence, or constitute a general danger." More specifically, Article 6 prohibited "actions considered incompatible with the implementation of the socialist order in the state" and opposition to the unification of the Arab states or any of the aims of the revolution. Furthermore, it enjoined communicating with or benefiting from any organization or foreign state for the purpose of undertaking any action, verbal or physical, hostile to the aims of the revolution. Article 6 also proscribed attacks on places of worship, command centers, military establishments, or other government institutions. Finally, hoarding of or profiteering in foodstuffs, and currency regulation violations, fell under martial law.
Because the 1963 martial law directives gave blanket authority to the martial law governor, in 1979 Assad vowed to "apply firmly the sovereignty of law" and to "strengthen the authority of the judiciary." He issued orders limiting the jurisdiction of the State Security Courts and annulled martial law in cases not actually affecting state security. Moreover, the written orders implementing extraordinary measures were subject to review by the Administrative Court of Justice (Majlis ad Dawlah), which had ruled in several instances that the martial law governor's powers did not exceed the limits specified in Article 4. In such cases, the administrative court could rule the martial law governor's actions illegal and invalid and award compensation to the injured party.
Martial law offenses were tried at State Security Courts, whose presiding members were appointed by presidential decree. The verdicts of State Security Courts were not subject to appeal, but were ratified by the president, who could suspend or vacate the verdict, order a retrial, or reduce the penalty. The decision of the president was irreversible.
In 1987, criminal and judicial procedures continued to be modeled after those of France. Following an arrest, the police presented their evidence to a public prosecutor, who conducted his own investigation. If the prosecutor decided to proceed, he referred the case to the appropriate court. Decisions were made by a majority of the three judges of the court, who ruled on questions of law and fact. There was no trial by jury. In the mid-1980s about 90 percent of all criminal court cases resulted in a conviction. Although the legal code provides for due process, it is not always followed. For example, in its Human Rights Report to the United States Congress of 1985, the United States Department of State stated that "under the state of emergency in force since 1963...an individual may be held indefinitely without charge or trial, especially in political and security cases." Penalties were severe. They included loss of civil rights, fines, imprisonment for up to life, forced labor, exile, and death by hanging or firing squad. Public hangings in Damascus Square of convicted thieves, murderers, assassins, and spies continued to be a common occurrence in 1987. Amnesty International reported that 15 "officially confirmed executions" took place in 1985.
Observers have asserted that the Syrian penal system was geared toward punishment rather than rehabilitation. In a 1986 report, the United States Department of State provided little detailed information about prison conditions, but reported that those charged with or convicted of criminal offenses have been detained in isolation from those charged with political and security offenses. Health care, food, and access by family to persons held in ordinary prisons were reported to be adequate, while conditions at prisons where political and security prisoners were held were reported to be more severe, with family visits prohibited. In its 1985 human rights report, the Department of State also noted that "there have been numerous credible reports of torture, primarily during arrest and interrogation," and (referring to the 1985 Amnesty International Report) added that "use of torture by the Syrian security forces is routine."
Today, prison conditions vary but generally are poor and do not meet international standards for health and sanitation. Facilities for political or national security prisoners generally are worse than those for common criminals. The notorious Tadmur Prison in Palmyra, where many political and national security prisoners have been kept, is widely considered to have the worst conditions. There were unconfirmed press reports in September that the Government closed the civilian wing of Tadmur Prison, and unconfirmed press reports earlier in the year that the Government moved approximately 500 to 600 political prisoners from Tadmur Prison to Sayadnaya Prison in preparation for Tadmur's eventual closing.
At some prisons, authorities allow visitation, but in other prisons, security officials demand bribes from family members who wish to visit incarcerated relatives. Overcrowding and the denial of sufficient nourishment occur at several prisons. According to Human Rights Watch, prisoners and detainees are held without adequate medical care, and some prisoners with significant health problems reportedly are denied medical treatment. Some former detainees have reported that the Government prohibits reading materials, even the Koran, for political prisoners.
There were credible reports in 2000 that minors were held in adult facilities for 6 months and were not allowed visits from family members. There are separate detention facilities for women and children.
The Government does not permit independent monitoring of prison or detention center conditions. In June the Government allowed a German diplomat to visit Hussein Dawud, a Syrian member of the Kurdish Popular Union Party imprisoned in Sayadnaya Prison, after rumors of Dawud's death by torture were published. The diplomat confirmed Dawud's presence and saw no signs of torture.
Violence against women occurs, but there are no reliable statistics regarding the prevalence of domestic violence or sexual assault. The vast majority of cases likely are unreported, and victims generally are reluctant to seek assistance outside the family. One preliminary academic study suggested that domestic violence is the largest single reason for divorces, and that such abuse is more prevalent among the less-educated and persons who live in rural areas. Battered women have the legal right to seek redress in court, but few do so because of the social stigma attached to such action. The Syrian Women's Federation offers services to battered wives to remedy individual family problems. The Syrian Family Planning Association also attempts to deal with this problem. Some private groups, including the Family Planning Association, have organized seminars on violence against women, which were reported by the government press. There are a few private, nonofficial, specifically designated shelters or safe havens for battered women who seek to flee their husbands.
Rape is a felony; however, there are no laws against spousal rape.
Prostitution is prohibited by law, and it is not a widespread problem.
The law specifically provides for reduced sentences in "honor" crimes (a euphemism that refers to violent assaults with intent to murder against a female by a male for alleged sexual misconduct). Instances of honor crimes are rare and happen primarily in rural areas in which Bedouin customs prevail.
The Constitution provides for equality between men and women and equal pay for equal work. Moreover the Government has sought to overcome traditional discriminatory attitudes toward women and encourages women's education. However, the Government has not yet changed personal status, retirement, and social security laws that discriminate against women. In addition some secular laws discriminate against women. For example, under criminal law, the punishment for adultery for a woman is twice that as for the same crime committed by a man.
Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups are subject to their respective religious laws on marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For Muslims personal status law on divorce is based on Shari'a (Islamic law), and some of its provisions discriminate against women. For example, husbands may claim adultery as grounds for divorce, but wives face more difficulty in presenting the same argument. If a woman requests a divorce from her husband, she may not be entitled to child support in some instances. In addition under the law, a woman loses the right to custody of boys when they reach age 9 and girls at age 12.
Inheritance for Muslims also is based on Shari'a. Accordingly Muslim women usually are granted half of the inheritance share of male heirs. However, Shari'a mandates that male heirs provide financial support to the female relatives who inherit less. For example, a brother who inherits an unmarried sister's share from their parents' estate is obligated to provide for the sister's well being. If the brother fails to do so, she has the right to sue.
Polygyny is legal but is practiced only by a small minority of Muslim men.
A husband may request that his wife's travel abroad be prohibited. Women generally are barred from travelling abroad with their children unless they are able to prove that the father has granted permission for the children to travel.
The law prohibits sexual harassment and specifies different punishments depending on whether the victim is a minor or an adult. Sexual harassment does not appear to be a significant problem.
Women participate actively in public life and are represented in most professions, including the military. Women are not impeded from owning or managing land or other real property. Women constitute approximately 7 percent of judges, 10 percent of lawyers, 57 percent of teachers below university level, and 20 percent of university professors.
There is no legal discrimination between boys and girls in education or in health care. Education is compulsory for all children, male or female, between the ages of 6 and 12. According to the Syrian Women's Union, about 46 percent of the total number of students through the secondary level are female. Nevertheless, societal pressure for early marriage and childbearing interferes with girls' educational progress, particularly in rural areas, in which the dropout rates for female students remain high.
The Government provides medical care for children until the age of 18.
Although there are cases of child abuse, there is no societal pattern of abuse against children. The law provides for severe penalties for those found guilty of the most serious abuses against children.
Child prostitution is a rare problem, mainly involving orphans.
An estimated 10 percent of children under the age of 18 participate in the labor force.
The law emphasizes the need to protect children, and the Government has organized seminars regarding the subject of child welfare.
TRAFFICKING IN PERSONS
There are no laws that specifically prohibit trafficking in persons; however, there were no reports that persons were trafficked to, from, or within the country. Standard labor laws could be applied in the event of allegations of trafficking.
In 1998, the Syrian Arab Republic government (SARG) continued to make progress in combating the drug trade, but Syria remains an important transit country for drugs flowing in and out of Lebanon and Turkey. Syria has used its influence in Lebanon to assist Lebanese officials in significantly suppressing drug production and trafficking there in recent years. Reports of drug-related corruption among Syrian military officials stationed in Lebanon persisted in 1998. SARG officials acknowledged that some lower-ranking military officials have been arrested in the past for narcotics possession. Syria is a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention. Syria does not have a bilateral narcotics agreement with the U.S. Due to the eradication of illicit opium in the Biqa' Valley in Lebanon, President Clinton removed Syria from the Drug Majors List in 1997. The U.S. continues to monitor the illicit drug situation in Syria and the Syrian-occupied areas of Lebanon.
Internet research assisted by Phy Long Ngov