THERE is only one state in the Middle East with local human rights activists behind bars, sentenced to five to 10 years with hard labor.
Where? Syria. Why? Because of the ``crime'' of calling attention to rights violations by President Hafez al-Assad's regime.
Imprisoning citizens for human rights activities is shameful, and President Clinton should say so when he meets the Syrian leader in Geneva on Sunday. He should press firmly for the immediate, unconditional release of the 15 rights monitors - among them lawyers, writers, a university lecturer - languishing in Adra and Sednaya prisons outside Damascus.
Given the Syrian government's grim, lengthy record of repressing domestic criticism of its policies and practices, it was remarkable that a group of courageous Syrians met in Damascus in December 1989 and established an independent human rights organization, the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). The group committed itself to formidable goals: the lifting of Syria's 30-year state of emergency and related martial laws, release of prisoners detained for freedom of expression, and restoration of civil and political rights within a constitutional framework of the rule of law and separation of powers.
Because of the Assad regime's lack of tolerance for independent organizations of civil society, activists were forced to work clandestinely. In December 1991, CDF distributed a boldly written statement inside Syria. It called on the government to lift emergency law and halt arbitrary detention, release all political prisoners, permit the formation of opposition political parties, grant legal status to CDF, and institute judicial safeguards to allow the return of Syrian exiles without penalty.
The regime's response was swift. Within days, security forces began to arrest suspected CDF members and supporters; family members were also detained. Seventeen CDF members were tried before the Supreme State Security Court. They were charged with violating the emergency law, including membership in an illegal organization (CDF), disseminating false information, and undermining the state through distribution of unlicensed leaflets critical of the government. Court proceedings fell far short of international fair-trial norms.
Of the 14 activists convicted by the court in March 1992, 10 remain in prison. Five, including two lawyers, a writer, and a university lecturer, are serving sentences of eight to 10 years with hard labor; five are serving five-year terms. In 1993 the security court began proceedings against five other CDF members, two of them writers. All five were arrested in February and March 1992.
The crackdown on CDF is evidence of the regime's determination to crush the nascent Syrian human rights movement and severely punish its active members. Without publicity about the fate of imprisoned monitors, and in the absence of forceful advocacy on their behalf, Mr. Assad will continue to muzzle critics.
The upcoming Clinton-Assad meeting in Geneva is described as part of the United States effort to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process. But respect for human rights by all regional parties is essential to any stable, lasting peace. Harsh repression of locally based human rights monitors complicates enormously the task of documenting and publicizing rights abuses in order to hold governments accountable. Mr. Clinton needs to tell Assad that Syrians should be permitted to associate in independent organizations and to collect and disseminate information freely. He should request the immediate release of the imprisoned monitors and urge that CDF be permitted to carry out its activities without fear of retaliation by the state. Above all, Clinton should deliver the message that peace in the region will not endure in an environment poisoned by human rights violations. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.