Assad issues a post-election amnesty to Syrian prisoners, though to whom isn’t clear


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in March. (AFP/Getty Images)

President Bashar al-
Assad followed his triumph in last week’s election by announcing a general amnesty Monday for at least some prisoners, though it was unclear whether the thousands of people jailed for opposing his rule would be included.

A presidential decree publicized by state media said the amnesty would apply to all crimes committed before last Tuesday’s presidential election, but it also suggested that at least some prisoners would merely have their sentences commuted.

State television said the amnesty would not apply to those guilty of “terrorism,” a word widely applied to people who have supported the rebellion against Assad’s rule, including political opponents.

A report in the official Baath Party newspaper al-Thawra said the amnesty would cover thousands of people “who had not committed serious crimes . . . especially those who do not have Syrian blood on their hands,” further suggesting that it would not apply to the rebels or their supporters.

Authorities have prepared a list of 1,000 names of people “who did not commit any terrorist acts,” the newspaper said, adding that 490 people have been freed since the election last week. The newspaper said the focus of the amnesty is the large number of people being held in prisons on relatively minor offenses who have not been brought to trial because of a backlog in the courts.

Human rights groups say tens of thousands of people have vanished into Syrian jails since the revolt against Assad’s rule began three years ago, and at least some are likely to have died in detention.

Several amnesties issued since the beginning of the uprising in 2011 have resulted in the release of minor criminals or, in the case of one in the immediate aftermath, scores of Islamists. Moderate opposition leaders have pointed to that release as evidence that Assad intended to radicalize his opponents and thereby turn international opinion against the opposition.

Meanwhile, political critics have remained behind bars, including young blogger Tal al-
Mallohi, who was detained before the protests began and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The government has also made it clear that it regards politicians who support the armed opposition as terrorists by charging some of the leading figures in the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition with terrorism.

The decree says foreign fighters can claim amnesty if they hand themselves in to the authorities within a month, in a reference to the thousands of jihadist volunteers from the Arab world, Europe and the United States who have bolstered the forces mostly of extremist groups. But the decree seems to specify that only those who arrived in Syria “with the intent” of joining terrorist groups or committing acts of terrorism are covered, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.

The amnesty follows Assad’s claimed victory by a landslide 88.7 percent of the vote in last week’s election, which handed him a third seven-year term. Although the United States and its allies have denounced the vote as “meaningless” because it lacked transparency or serious competitors, the election underscored Assad’s continued control over much of Syria, despite the armed rebellion against him.

Syrian Justice Minister Najem al-Ahmad said the amnesty was intended to promote “social tolerance and national unity” in the wake of recent advances against the rebels by forces loyal to Assad, according to the pro-government al-Ikhbariya television station.

In a sign that the diplomatic landscape may also be shifting in the wake of the election, Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa al-Thani, urged the U.N. Security Council on Monday to work toward a cease-fire in Syria, according to the Qatar News Agency. Qatar is regarded as a key financial and political supporter of the rebels, and the comments suggested that Qatar also may be seeking new ways to end the crisis.

In a further indication that
Assad’s allies and foes are starting to reach out to one another, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani flew to Ankara on Monday to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a key supporter of the Syrian rebels.

Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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