Syria | Page 23 | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2004

2004 Scores


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Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


In the face of growing international pressure to end his government's sponsorship of militant terrorist groups and the fall of a sister Baathist government in neighboring Iraq, Syrian President Bashar Assad came under mounting domestic pressure in 2003 to reform the repressive and corrupt political system built by his father. Although some nominal political and economic reforms were introduced, government suppression of political and civil liberties continued, with dozens of people arrested during the year for peacefully expressing their opinions.

Located at the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the Syrian capital of Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and once controlled a vast empire extending from Europe to India. The modern state of Syria is a comparatively recent entity, established by the French after World War I and formally granted independence in 1946. The pan-Arab Baath Party, which seized control of Syria 40 years ago, has long sought to extend its writ beyond Syrian borders. For all its pan-Arab pretensions, however, the Syrian government has been dominated by Alawites, adherents of an offshoot sect of Islam who constitute just 12 percent of the population, since a 1970 coup brought Gen. Hafez Assad to power. For the next 30 years, the Assad regime managed to maintain control of the majority Sunni Muslim population only by brutally suppressing all dissent. In 1982, government forces stormed the northern town of Hama to crush a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood and killed as many as 20,000 insurgents and civilians in a matter of days.

In 2000, Assad's son and successor, Bashar, inherited control of a country with one of the most stagnant economies and highest rates of population growth in the region, with unemployment estimated at more than 20 percent. In his inaugural speech, the young Syrian leader pledged to eliminate government corruption, revitalize the economy, and establish a "democracy specific to Syria, which takes its roots from its history and respects its society."

The first six months of Assad's tenure brought dramatic changes. Loose networks of public figures from all sectors of civil society were allowed to discuss the country's social, economic, and political problems in informal gatherings. Assad released more than 600 political prisoners, closed the notorious Mazzeh prison, allowed scores of exiled dissidents to return home, reinstated dissidents who had been fired from state-run media outlets and universities, and instructed the state-run media to give a voice to reformers. The "Damascus Spring" reached its zenith in January 2001 with the establishment of the country's first privately owned newspaper.

In February 2001, however, the regime abruptly reimposed restrictions on public freedoms and launched an escalating campaign of threats, intimidation, and harassment against the reform movement. By the end of the year, ten leading reformists had been arrested. In 2002, the "Damascus Ten" were sentenced to prison terms, while the security agencies arrested over a dozen additional journalists, human rights activists, and political dissidents. The regime's renewed assault on political and civil liberties initially elicited little criticism from Western governments, in part because of Assad's cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda. Economic reform also fell by the wayside as dozens of reform laws remained unimplemented or were put into effect half-heartedly; hopes for a much-needed influx of foreign investment faded.

The March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a country hitherto ruled by a rival branch of the Baath Party, posed serious problems for the Assad regime. The downfall of Saddam Hussein brought an end to Iraqi shipments of cut-rate petroleum supplies, which had helped the government weather dismal economic conditions without implementing major reforms. Scenes of Iraqis celebrating the downfall of a regime so similar to the one in Damascus inspired Syria's pro-democracy movement to reassert itself. In late May, nearly 300 intellectuals signed a petition demanding the release of all political prisoners, the cancellation of the state of emergency, and other political reforms.

After the fall of Baghdad, the Syrian government introduced a number of largely cosmetic social and political reforms. The requirement that Syrian school children wear military-style khaki uniforms was lifted, and the ministry of education was given the authority to make decisions without prior approval from the Baath Party's education bureau. In June, the government decreed that Baath Party membership would no longer affect advancement in the civil service. On the economic front, Assad eased laws on foreign currency transactions, approved the establishment of the country's first private banks and universities, and announced plans to set up a stock market. In September, Assad appointed a new prime minister and cabinet ostensibly committed to economic reform.

Syrian relations with the United States rapidly deteriorated during the invasion of Iraq, when U.S. officials publicly accused Damascus of shipping weapons to the Iraqi military and sending "volunteers" across the border to fight coalition forces. The Bush administration also intensified its calls for Syria to stop sponsoring terrorist groups opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and abandon its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. In October, the Bush administration publicly endorsed an Israeli air strike on an alleged terrorist training camp outside of Damascus and announced its support for congressional sanctions on Syria.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The Assad regime wields absolute authority in Syria and Syrians cannot change their government through democratic means. Under the 1973 constitution, the president is nominated by the ruling Baath Party and approved by a popular referendum. In practice, these referendums are orchestrated by the regime, as are elections to the 250-member People's Assembly, which holds little independent legislative power. The only legal political parties are the Baath Party and six small parties that comprise the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF).

Parliamentary elections in March 2003 were boycotted by five major opposition groups. All 167 of the NPF's candidates were elected, with "independent" candidates taking the remaining 83 seats. At least two people were arrested by the authorities for distributing pamphlets calling for a boycott.

Freedom of expression is heavily restricted. Vaguely worded articles of the Penal Code and Emergency Law give the government considerable discretion in punishing those who express dissent. The Penal Code prohibits the publication of information that opposes "the goals of the revolution," incites sectarianism, or "prevents authorities from executing their responsibilities." The broadcast media are entirely state owned, apart from a handful of non-news radio stations licensed in 2003. While there are some privately owned newspapers and magazines, a new press law enacted in September 2001 permits the government to arbitrarily deny or revoke publishing licenses for reasons "related to the public interest," and compels privately owned print media outlets to submit all material to government censors on the day of publication. Syrians are permitted to access the Internet only through state-run servers, which block access to a wide range of Web sites. Satellite dishes are illegal, but generally tolerated. In July 2003, the government revoked the publishing license of the country's leading independent newspaper, Al-Doumari. In May, the authorities released the Damascus bureau chief of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, Ibrahim Humaydi, who had been arrested in December 2002 on charges of "publishing false information."

Although the constitution requires that the president be a Muslim, there is no state religion in Syria and freedom of worship is generally respected. The Alawite minority dominates the officer corps of the military and security forces. Since the eruption of an Islamist rebellion in the late 1970s, the government has tightly monitored mosques and controlled the appointment of Muslim clergy. Academic freedom is heavily restricted. University professors have been routinely dismissed from state universities in recent years due to their involvement in the pro-democracy movement, and some have been imprisoned.

Freedom of assembly is largely nonexistent. While citizens can ostensibly hold demonstrations with prior permission from the Interior Ministry, in practice only the government, the Baath Party, or groups linked to them are allowed to organize demonstrations. In May 2003, according to the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee, 11 people in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, were arrested after they demonstrated against local corruption. All 11 were subsequently sentenced by the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) to prison sentences ranging from three to four years. At least eight Kurdish activists who participated in a peaceful protest outside the Damascus headquarters of UNICEF in June were arrested and remained in prison at year's end.

Freedom of association is restricted. All nongovernmental organizations must register with the government, which generally denies registration to reformist groups. Three unregistered human rights groups have been allowed to operate in Syria, though individual members of the groups have been jailed for human rights related activities. In July 2003, Assad issued a presidential pardon for four members of the Syrian Human Rights Association arrested in 2002.

All unions must belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU). Although ostensibly independent, the GFTU is headed by a member of the ruling Baath Party and is used by the government to control all aspects of union activity in Syria. While strikes in non-agricultural sectors are legal, they rarely occur.

While regular criminal and civil courts operate with some independence and generally safeguard defendants' rights, most politically sensitive cases are tried by two exceptional courts established under emergency law: the SSSC and the Economic Security Court (ESC). Both courts deny or limit the right to appeal, limit access to legal counsel, try most cases behind closed doors, and admit as evidence confessions obtained through torture. Abdel Rahman Shagouri was arrested in February 2003 for distributing an e-mail newsletter from a banned Web site and remained in detention throughout the year awaiting trial before the SSSC. Fourteen people were arrested in August for attending a lecture about the state of emergency in Syria and charged by the SSSC with inciting "factional conflict." A July 2003 decree reportedly stipulated that economic crimes previously tried by the ESC will henceforth be tried by criminal courts, but it is not clear whether the ESC has been abolished.

The state of emergency in force since 1963 gives the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge. Many of the several hundred remaining political prisoners in Syria have never been tried for any offense. The security agencies, which operate independently of the judiciary, routinely extract confessions by torturing suspects and detaining members of their families. Government surveillance of dissidents is widespread. At least seven opposition figures who returned from exile in Iraq in 2003 were arrested and detained on their arrival in Syria, as were at least four exiles returning from other countries. Most were released within a few weeks, but a few reportedly remained in detention at year's end. One Syrian opposition figure who remained in Iraq, Riad al-Shouqfeh, narrowly escaped assassination on July 23. There were many reports of torture by the security forces during the year. In November, Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen released after ten months of detention by the authorities, publicly described the torture he experienced in captivity. According to Amnesty International, Kurdish activist Khalil Mustafa died two days after his arrest on August 8 as a result of torture.

The Kurdish minority in Syria faces cultural and linguistic restrictions, and suspected Kurdish activists are routinely dismissed from schools and jobs. Some 200,000 Syrian Kurds are deprived of citizenship and unable to obtain passports, identity cards, or birth certificates, which in turn prevents them from owning land, obtaining government employment, or voting. The September 2001 press law requires that owners and editors in chief of publications be Arabs. At least thirteen suspected Kurdish activists were arrested and jailed in 2003. Two Kurdish organizers of a December 2002 demonstration against government discrimination were put on trial before the SSSC in late 2003 on charges of advocating Kurdish secession, but no ruling had been issued by year's end.

Although most Syrians do not face travel restrictions, relatives of exiled dissidents are routinely prevented from traveling abroad and many Kurds lack the requisite documents to leave the country. Equality of opportunity has been compromised by rampant corruption and conscious government efforts to weaken the predominantly Sunni urban bourgeoisie.

The government has promoted gender equality by appointing women to senior positions in all branches of government and providing equal access to education, but many discriminatory laws remain in force. A husband may request that the Interior Ministry block his wife from traveling abroad, and women are generally barred from leaving the country with their children unless they can prove that the father has granted permission. Syrian law stipulates that an accused rapist can be acquitted if he marries his victim, and it provides for reduced sentences in cases of "honor crimes" committed by men against female relatives for alleged sexual misconduct. Personal status law for Muslim women is governed by Sharia (Islamic law) and is discriminatory in marriage, divorce, and inheritance matters. Violence against women is widespread, particularly in rural areas.