Syria launches crackdown on dissent

The biggest wave of arrests since 2001 hits advocates of better ties with Lebanon.

As if thumbing its nose at international pressure for democratic reform, Syria has jailed writers, activists, and intellectuals over the past week in a sweeping crackdown on internal dissent.

While those here who speaks out against the government puts themselves at risk, activists say more people have been arrested in this latest wave than at any time since 2001. This crackdown, they say, is aimed mostly at signatories of a declaration demanding that Syria improve relations with Lebanon.

"There is a preventive war being launched by the government and the ostensible reason is that people talked about an issue that is considered taboo: Syrian-Lebanese relations," says Yassin Haj-Saleh, an opposition figure who also signed the declaration, but has not yet been arrested.

"But in reality, the activists have been talking about this for the past two years," he says. "Now the government wants to forbid any kind of dissent or opposition so when the results of the international investigation [into last year's assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister] come out, the regime will have complete control of the country."

A UN investigation into the killing of Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri has implicated top Syrian security officials, and Syria is now nervously awaiting a new report, due in mid-June.

The Beirut-Damascus declaration

Signed by nearly 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, the Beirut- Damascus declaration, released nearly two weeks ago, demanded that Syria improve its relations with Lebanon, first by setting up embassies in each country and by clearly demarcating the border between the two nations.

Michel Kilo, one of the country's most prominent writers and activist, and Anwar al-Bunni, a leading human rights lawyer, were among 13 activists arrested (three were later released) and charged before civilian courts last week with inciting sectarian strife and disrespecting the state after they signed the document.

Marwan Kabalan, a professor of political science at Damascus University, says the crackdown was spurred by the fact that the declaration coincided with the passing of UN Security Council resolution 1680, which was co-sponsored by the US, France, and Britain, and which posed similar demands as the declaration. The state-run newspaper Tishrin called the timing of the declaration with the UN resolution "suspicious."

"The regime feels that Lebanon is being used by France and the US to undermine the regime," says Prof. Kabalan. "[The activists] were trying to ally themselves with the external pressure versus the regime and that is something the regime will not accept."

The arrests are seen as the worst crackdown since 2001, when the arrest of 10 prominent activists, including two parliament members, brought an end to a democracy movement called the Damascus Spring that emerged when Bashar al-Assad took power in 2000.

Now, Mr. Kilo and others could face life in prison. Haitham al-Maleh, a human rights lawyer, says that Mr. Bunni was also being charged with accepting money from foreign entities.

In March, Bunni opened up a human rights center, which was largely funded by the European Union. But it was closed down just weeks after opening.

Earlier this month, Fateh Jamous, a communist opposition leader, was also arrested on his return from Europe.

Syrian-Lebanese relations deteriorated sharply after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri last year, and after Syria withdrew its forces from neighboring Lebanon in April 2005 in the face of intense international pressure.

A UN-led investigation into the Hariri assassination last year initially implicated high-level Syrian officials as suspects in the assassination and brought intense pressure on the country.

But over the past few months, analysts say that Syrian cooperation with the investigation has helped ease the pressure on the country and strengthen the regime. Earlier this month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with leading UN prosecutor Serge Brammertz in Damascus.

And with international pressure now focused on Iran and on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, some believe the arrests are a sign that the Syrian government has weathered the storm.

"The government is more comfortable than in the past," says Kabalan. "They feel strong compared to six or seven months ago. They have survived the crisis before and they feel they can take the pressure. And now they feel the West is preoccupied with Iran and that they feel less concerned with Syria and the Syrian people. They have seen that the US and Europe can't do much about arrests."

Foreign pressure on Syria mounts

On Tuesday, the US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack demanded that Syria comply with the UN resolution 1680 and that it release all political prisoners.

The EU last Friday also urged the Syrian government to release all prisoners.

A statement by the Syrian foreign ministry criticized the EU for interfering in internal Syrian affairs.

The most recent arrests will not quiet the country's weak and fragmented opposition completely, according to Mr. Haj-Saleh.

"The margin of freedom of speech here has decreased but it is not going to go away completely," he says. "For that to happen, they need to arrest more than 10 people."

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