Urgent Interventions

Activists Not Released Despite Amnesty - Free Peaceful Advocates, Workers Arbitrarily Detained

(July 18, 2014) – Scoresof civil society activists, human rights defenders, media and humanitarianworkers remain in arbitrary detention in Syria more than a monthafter the government declared a general amnesty, twelve nongovernmentalorganizations said today. Syrian officials should immediately release allactivists arbitrarily held for their legitimate activities and allow independent international monitorsinside Syria’s detention facilities to monitor the releases and conditions ofconfinement.

LegislativeDecree no. 22, enacted on June 9, 2014, declares an amnesty for many of thecharges peaceful activists are facing, including “weakening nationalsentiment,” as well as some offenses under the Anti-Terrorism Law that arebeing used to muzzle dissent. But many peaceful activists who should havebenefitted from the amnesty remain in detention, the organizations said. Otherindividuals who are arbitrarily detained as a result of their humanrights-related activities, including some of those facing charges in militaryfield courts, like freedom ofexpression advocate Bassil Khartabil, have been excluded from the amnesty. Someadvocates, like the lawyers and human rights defenders Khalil Maatouk and Abdulhadi CheikhAwad, whom former detainees report to have seen in government detention,continue to be held in conditionsamounting to enforced disappearance with their relatives having no informationabout their fate or whereabouts. Of a group of 34 peaceful activists whosecases the organizations have been monitoring, only one, YaraFaris, was released under theJune 9 amnesty.

“PresidentAssad’s amnesty raised the hopes of many detainees and their families, only todash them again as weeks passed by without any movement,” a spokesperson fromthe organizations said. “Every day behind bars for peaceful activists, whoshould never have been jailed in the first place, is another day of injusticefor them and their families.”

Family members,detainees, and lawyers complained about the lack of transparency about theimplementation of the amnesty, such as providing information about who would bereleased.

SANA,the government news agency, released several statements about the numbers ofpeople released in the amnesty, totaling 2,445.

A lawyer working withpolitical detainees in Damascus who is monitoring the implementation of theamnesty to identify which individuals have been released told the organizationsthat the confirmed number of releases has not exceeded 1,300 individualsincluding regular criminal detainees. The lawyer said that those releasedincluded about 400 individuals that were before the Anti-Terrorism court, 200from Sednaya prison, 200 from the security branches, and 150 others from othergovernorate prisons. He stated that judges sent the files of some detainees whoought to be released under the amnesty back to the public prosecutor to changethe charges to ones that would fall outside the scope of the general amnesty.Other local activists also told the organizations that the amnesty occurredweeks after an intensified campaign of arbitrary arrest, and that some of the persons arrested weresubsequently released on the basis of the amnesty decree.

The Syrian Network forHuman Rights (SNHR), another local monitoring group reportedon July 10 that it had compiled information about 632 civilian detaineesreleased since June 10 under the amnesty, including 384 held on criminalcharges that are apparently not related to the conflict. The 248 others werehuman rights activists, lawyers, and doctors, 200 of whom were released by theAnti-Terrorism court. The group said that 25 defectors accused of disobeyingmilitary orders or not completing their compulsory military service were alsoreleased.

The Anti-Terrorismcourt, established in July 2012 toimplement the Anti-Terrorism Law, has tried and sentenced many human rightsdefenders and other peaceful activists. The charges are broughtunder the guise of countering violent militancy, but frequently the allegationsagainst the activists actually amount to such acts as distributing humanitarianaid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses.

On July 21, the Anti-Terrorismcourt will resume the trial of Mazen Darwish and four of his colleaguesfrom the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression on accusations of“publicizing terrorist acts,” a charge that is included in the legislativedecree.

Darwishis on trial along with Hussein Gharir, Hani Zaitani, Mansour Omari andAbdel Rahman Hamada. Omari and Hamada were conditionally released onFebruary 6, 2013 pending trial, but the other three men remain in detention.

Theindictment states that the charges against them were brought for their activitiesas staff members of the organization. The activities included monitoring onlinenews by the Syrian opposition, publishing studies on the human rights and mediasituation in Syria, and documenting names of the detained, disappeared, wantedand killed within the context of the Syrian conflict. The indictment furtherstates that an investigative judge in Damascus considered these actions part ofan attempt to “stir the internal situation in Syria and so provokeinternational organizations to condemn Syria in international forums.”

The activists who remainarbitrarily held despite the June 9 amnesty include 33 of the 34 detainees heldby the government as of June 9 featured in the Free Syria’s Silenced Voices campaign, carried out by a coalitionof independent groups on behalf of activists, and humanitarian and mediaworkers arbitrarily detained by the government.

While itis impossible to verify the number of people in detention in Syria, the Violations Documentation Center,another local monitoring group, reports that 40,853 people detained since thestart of the uprising in March 2011 are still being held.

Although President Basharal-Assad has issued at least seven previous amnesty decrees since the uprisingbegan in 2011, security forces have kept many peaceful activists in detention.For the first time, however, the June 2014 amnesty included those who have beencharged with or convicted of freedom of expression-related offenses under the Anti-Terrorism Law enacted in 2012 (article 8 of theAnti-Terrorism Law).

“If President al-Assad is serious about his amnesty, he should open thedoors of all his prisons to independent monitors to check who is actually beingheld and why,” the spokesperson said.“Otherwise, this general amnesty will end up being yet another false promise,with released detainees soon replaced by other peaceful activists locked up. Itshould not take an amnesty to end the arbitrary detention of individualsimprisoned solely for peaceful political activism, human rights, humanitarianand media work.”

Thetwelve nongovernmental organizations are:

Amnesty International

Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network

FIDH in the framework of the Observatoryfor the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

Front Line Defenders

Gulf Center for Human Rights

Humanist Institute for Co-operation withDeveloping Countries

Human Rights Watch

WorldOrganisation Against Torture (OMCT) in the framework of the Observatory for theProtection of Human Rights Defenders

Reporters WithoutBorders
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression
Syrian Network for Human Rights

ViolationsDocumentation Center