Syria begins freeing prisoners after Assad amnesty

AFP , Tuesday 10 Jun 2014

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (Photo: Reuters)

Syria has begun releasing prisoners, many of whom were held without charge, under the broadest amnesty the country has seen since the Assad clan took power nearly 50 years ago.

The amnesty declared by President Bashar al-Assad came a week after his controversial re-election as he seeks to portray himself as the champion of reconciliation in the war-torn country.

Assad is due to be sworn in for a new term on July 17.

"This is the most important amnesty since Hafez al-Assad (the president's father and predecessor) came to power nearly 45 years ago," said human rights lawyer and ex-prisoner of conscience Anwar al-Bunni.

He said the amnesty should cover "tens of thousands of prisoners behind bars because of the anti-terror law passed in July 2012", more than a year into an anti-regime revolt.

According to Bunni, "dozens of prisoners began to be released from Adra prison (in Damascus province) yesterday (Monday) and the releases will continue today."

State television showed dozens of prisoners being freed in Hama in central Syria.

The amnesty is unprecedented because it extends for the first time to those accused under the country's anti-terrorism legislation.

The government has dubbed all of those opposed to Assad's rule -- armed opposition fighters and peaceful activists alike -- of "terrorism", and used the law to imprison high-profile dissidents.

The amnesty is also the first to offer clemency to foreign jihadists fighting for the opposition, as long as they hand themselves in within a month.

Army deserters will be given full pardons if they hand themselves in within three months of the decree, according to the text.

But it was unclear how many prisoners might be freed under the amnesty, as previous clemency decisions have not seen large numbers of detainees released.

"This amnesty should not be yet another false promise, and the released should not be replaced by new activists being wrongfully imprisoned," Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, told AFP.

Lawyer Michel Shammas said it was unclear how the decree would apply for thousands of people detained in branches of Syria's notorious security establishment, where torture is systematic.

But both he and Bunni said several prominent figures were expected to be freed.

"Mazen Darwish, Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir will be released, as will activist Leyla Awad, psychologist Jamal Nawfal and Raneem Maatuq, daughter of (jailed lawyer) Khalil Maatuq," Shammas said.

"But there is no meaning for an amnesty if it doesn't include all the detainees, and we don't know yet how the decree will be applied for more than 50,000 people being held in security branches."

Darwish, Ghreir and Zaitani were arrested in February 2012 in a raid on the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) where they work.

The three face trial for activities "such as monitoring online news and publishing the names of the dead and disappeared".

Meanwhile, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi told AFP that more than 100 people who handed themselves over to authorities after being trapped by a nearly two-year siege of the central city will be at home within 72 hours.

Assad issued the amnesty five days after securing another seven-year term in Syria's first multi-candidate presidential vote, which the opposition and much of the international community denounced as a "farce".

Voting took place only in regime-held territory, amid a raging conflict that has killed more than 162,000 people in three years, and excluded any anti-regime opponents from standing.

On Tuesday, state television broadcast footage of Assad meeting Maher al-Hajjar and Hassan al-Nuri, the two regime-approved candidates who stood against him but who together secured less than 12 percent of the votes cast.

During their meeting, Assad said "the citizens' turnout showed very clearly the strength of the Syrian people and their determination to decide their destiny all alone, despite very difficult circumstances".

Since the anti-Assad revolt erupted, the regime has blamed all violence on a foreign-backed "terrorist" plot.

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