The human rights group Amnesty International has released a report Thursday accusing Syria of wrongfully imprisoning opposition leaders, members of parliament and civilian activists in an effort to clamp down on free expression.
The report by Amnesty International profiles the cases of 12 Syrians imprisoned for their political activities. "The only crime these people committed," the human rights group said, "was to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression."
The report calls for the immediate release of the prisoners. Among them is Riad Seif who was convicted in March on charges of violating the constitution and sentenced to five years in prison. Mr. Seif was arrested in September of 2001 after organizing a seminar at which a guest speaker called for democratic elections and political reform in Syria.
According to Abdel Moneim Said, who heads the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, "political reform has evaded Syria for decades."
"Syria is one of the few countries in the world that is still remaining without any change in the last three decades. And at a time that most countries in the world are trying to grapple with issues of democracy, human rights, market economies and so forth, Syria still, as a country, almost did not depart much from the 1960s. It is a country that, so far, did not succeed to cross over from underdeveloped to developed and from a closed society to an open one. That is the dilemma of people who come to power and really fail their societies and their people," he said.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has attempted to liberalize the economy and has released more than 700 political detainees since taking office in July of 2000. But Mr. Said said "the president must still deal with a conservative Baath Party" which, he believes, "wants to maintain a stranglehold on Syrian society."
Mohammad Kamal teaches political science at Cairo University. He said Amnesty International's report will not mean much to Syria, but he said it could become a political tool for Israel in future Middle East peace negotiations regarding Israel's occupation of Syria's Golan Heights.
"I do not think Syria is going to change, or reform its political system because of the release of the report. But I am sure there are other countries, like Israel, that can use it in its propaganda war against Syria to argue that you cannot start peace negotiations with an authoritarian regime, with a dictatorship and Assad needs to reform the political system before any peace negotiations start. The same arguments ... are being used with Arafat," Mr. Kamal said.
In its report, Amnesty International noted there was a "relaxation of restrictions on freedom of expression" after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, who died in June of 2000. But the report said, for the past 18 months, Syria has been guilty of targeting opposition leaders, members of parliament and civilian activists.
The group said it feared some political prisoners may be subjected to torture and denied prompt access to medical care, lawyers and family members.
There has been no official response to the report from Syria.