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Rights Group Condemns Syrian Crackdown on Protesters

Deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch Joe Stork (file photo)

Deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch Joe Stork (file photo)

Hundreds of people have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured in Syria since protests erupted in the country last month, that’s according to the campaign group Human Rights Watch. Its report was published Friday as a wave of protests were reported across the country.

Human Rights Watch says security and intelligence services in Syria have detained demonstrators, journalists, and activists involved in protests during the past month.

Joe Stork is deputy Middle East director at the New York-based organization.

"What we heard was a very consistent account of pretty terrible abuse on a routine and systematic basis," said Stork.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 people who said they had been detained in a number of locations around the country, including the capital Damascus.

Two of those interviewed were women and three said they were aged 16 or 17.

All but two said they had been beaten.

The organization estimates that hundreds of people have been arbitrarily detained as a result of protests, but Stork says that estimate is conservative.

"We were able to talk with people who had been detained in about four or five different locations," he said. "There have been massive demonstrations in other cities that have been completely closed off by security services and army troops so we have no contact with them whatsoever."

Stork was speaking to VOA Friday as activists across Syria were reporting yet more demonstrations.

Thousands of people reportedly took to the streets in a number of cities, including Daraa, the epicenter of unrest since protests began.

One of the protesters' key demands has been the lifting of emergency law, which has been in place for almost half a century.

President Bashar al-Assad has pledged to replace the law with anti-terrorism legislation and on Thursday he announced amnesty for prisoners detained since protests began.

But many activists say it’s not enough.

Anthony Skinner is a Middle East analyst with the London-based group Maplecroft.

He says Mr. al-Assad must tread carefully when it comes to the use of violence against protesters.

"It can be an effective tool in dispersing protesters, instilling fear in the protesters, but at the same time it is one of the key sources of complaint, it is one of the key elements which actually fuels the disgruntlement, the dissatisfaction, and the distrust of the regime," said Skinner.

He says it’s not clear in what direction the protests will head.

"Al-Assad has not managed to draw the sting from the protest movement and it is conceivable that it will continue to gather force. But we are not talking about the mass protest movement that we have witnessed in North Africa - as yet," he said.

On Friday the United Nations denounced the Syrian government’s response to the protests, describing it as a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters.