Hopes for political reform eclipsed in Syria

A court hearing yesterday highlighted the impact of a crackdown on dissidents.

Ask Haitham Maleh why he is still free when many of his reformist colleagues are now in jail, and the veteran Syrian human rights activist smiles wryly.

"I don't know. Ask God," says the lawyer with a shrug. "I broke the barrier of fear a long time ago." Mr. Maleh remains an outspoken supporter of greater democracy in Syria – a passion that the arrests last year of some of his fellow advocates of sweeping political and economic reform has failed to dim. "We have many branches of mafia controlling the country, and they look after their own pockets. They don't care about politics." he says. "We are working to have a small window of freedom," adds Maleh, who once served a seven-year jail sentence. "We are not against the regime. No one in Syria believes it's possible to change the regime by force. We all want to change things through dialogue."

But Syria's ruling clique appears to be in no mood to tolerate the extent of political reform demanded by Mr Maleh and others. While a bid to restructure the flagging economy inches forward, prospects for political liberalization have been effectively quashed following the crackdown last year on reformists. The crackdown – which saw the arrest of 10 reformist leaders and the end of political discussion forums – underlines the simmering struggle for control in Syria between a well-entrenched old guard and a new generation of reformers who take inspiration from the country's youthful president, Bashar al-Assad.

A Damascus court held a second hearing yesterday in the trial of Riad Turk, leader of the banned Communist League. A critic of the regime who was imprisoned without charge between 1980 and 1998, Mr. Turk was arrested again last September during the crackdown and charged with trying to change the constitution by illegal means, incitement to armed sedition, and undermining patriotic sentiment and national morale. During the closed hearing, lawyers for Mr. Turk declared the court did not have legal jurisdiction to try the case and demanded an open trial.

"There was a lot of hope before the crackdown. But the way it was conducted has depressed the country," says Farouk Homsi, the brother of reformist MP Maamoun Homsi, who was jailed last August for distributing a manifesto that called on the authorities to end corruption.

The mood of quiet resignation here today is in marked contrast to the wave of optimism that engulfed Syria following the election of President Assad in June of 2000. Many Syrians believed that the atmosphere of repression and secrecy would vanish with the arrival of President Assad, who in his maiden speech as head of state vowed to usher in social and economic reforms.

In his first 18 months in office, President Assad granted amnesty to over 700 political prisoners. Political discussion groups – known as salons – flourished, attracting dozens of civil rights activists and liberal lawmakers who called for greater freedoms and democracy and criticized corruption and nepotism.

But the country's old guard balked at the pace of reform. The salons were banned, criticism of the president, army and security services forbidden, and, in August and September, several prominent critics of the regime detained.

The Syrian government defends the crackdown, saying that some reformers were "preaching violence." "These things are not allowed," says Adnan Omran, the Syrian minister of information. "The same [crackdown] would have been done in Britain, in America, in any place. If you violate existing laws, it is not freedom. It is freedom within the law [that counts], not against the law."

Many Syrians believe that the government's suppression of the reformist efforts was too heavy-handed. "When the government was criticized, it was not tolerant enough and did not give them the trials that any citizen in Syria deserves," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, a professor of law at Damascus University.

The crackdown has not entirely stifled the reformist movement in Syria, however. Addomari, a satirical newspaper launched in February of 2001, pokes fun at the ruling clique and highlights corruption and injustice. But reporters have been threatened, electricity cut at printing time, advertising pulled, and paper prices drastically increased. "We are paying a very high price because the people behind the corruption are not pleased with us,"says publisher Ali Ferzat. But the enormous popularity of Addomari at home and abroad has helped dissuade the old guard from closing it.

Though political reforms have stagnated, economic restructuring continues. But for economist Nabil Sukkar, the process is too slow and limited. "They want to emulate China but they are not doing it properly," he says. "Both want a market economy but at the same time maintain the political infrastructure... China has made a definite decision to go into a market economy while Syria has not."

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