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HRW Urges West to Press Syria on Human Rights

A report by international watchdog group Human Rights Watch is urging the West to engage Syria on its treatment of dissidents.

Human Rights Watch is drawing attention to the thorny issue of the treatment of dissidents in Syria at a time the West is trying to engage Damascus in political dialogue.

The United States made an overture to Syria, last month, by naming a new ambassador to Damascus for the first time since recalling Ambassador Margaret Scobie in 2005. Under Secretary of State William Burns, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, U.S. special envoy George Mitchell and Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman have all visited Syria in recent weeks to improve relations.

Human Rights Watch says "talking to Syria without putting its rights record on the table emboldens the government to believe that it can do whatever it wants to its people, without consequences."

The Human Rights Watch report says Syria's intelligence apparatus recently detained a number of Kurdish human-rights activists, in addition to many bloggers, journalists and writers.

A 79-year-old veteran Syrian human-rights lawyer, Haitham Maleh, has been jailed repeatedly, and Muhannad al Hasani, who presides over the Syrian Human Rights Organization, are being tried on charges of "spreading false information," "insulting the president," and "slandering the government."

The report says Syria has also reportedly banned hundreds of activists and dissidents from leaving the country. This includes travel to neighboring Lebanon.

American University of Beirut political science professor Hilal Khashan says Syria is ruled by a minority group, the Alawites, that often feels threatened and compelled to clamp down on the population to remain in power:

"Keep in mind that Syria has an authoritarian political system and the survival of the regime is the most important dimension of its domestic policy. If the Syrian regime were to grant its population their basic human rights, this means, according to their own thinking, to put the regime in the way of harm." said Khashan. "Therefore, they feel that the best way to protect the regime is to use excessive coercion to keep the population at bay," he added.

He says the Syrians use atrocious torture methods.

Lebanese parliament member Assem Kanso, a former head of the Lebanese branch of the pro-Syrian Ba'ath Party, complains that international human-rights organizations have singled out Syria, unfairly, and fail to address abuses by other nations:

He says he wishes human rights were applied equally across the world so that everyone could live in peace and security. He says the Human Rights Watch report is nothing new, and human rights in Syria must be compared to what he calls abuses elsewhere, in places like Guantanamo, as well as the situation in Palestine. No one is talking about those things, he complains.

A Syrian official told VOA that human rights is an "internal matter," and that he was unable to comment on the situation.