Human Rights Watch Urges Syria to Abolish Special Court

By Alia Ibrahim
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

BEIRUT, Feb. 24 -- Syrian human rights activists welcomed a Human Rights Watch report Tuesday that called on Syria to abolish its Supreme State Security Court, an institution founded four decades ago that the report said has been used to stifle opposition to the government.

Human Rights Watch said the court's proceedings, which the group researched from outside the country because Syria barred the entry of investigators, lack due process and urged the European Union and the United States to pressure Syria to close the court.

The Supreme State Security Court "consistently ignores claims by defendants that their confessions were extracted under torture and frequently convicts them on vague and overbroad offenses that essentially criminalize freedom of expression and association," Human Rights Watch said.

Syrian officials reached in Damascus declined to comment on the report. One cabinet minister called it irrelevant, and another official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that it was "not worth commenting on."

"American organizations, including HRW, have no credibility," the official said, adding: "Let them go check the violations undertaken by the previous administration from Guantanamo to the flying prisons to the violations of human rights in Gaza before they talk about other countries." Human Rights Watch has issued numerous reports, statements and letters on those subjects.

The 73-page report focuses in part on the cases of 237 known detainees tried from January 2007 to June 2008, when the court's activities are thought to have been suspended.

Researchers relied on statements by defendants who had finished their sentences and who were living outside Syria, as well as on interviews with unnamed Syrian lawyers and activists conducted through the Skype Internet phone service and secure e-mail. They also reviewed the notes of Western diplomats who have observed proceedings of the SSSC since 2004.

"We were not allowed in Syria, and many of the people we interviewed were afraid to give us information," said Nadim Houry, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Beirut.

Rights activists in Damascus endorsed the recommendations of Human Rights Watch. "This SSSC has been established at a stage of revolution in the '60s; that state has long passed, and the time has come for the Syrian government to review many of its laws and practices that are unconstitutional," said Muhannad al-Hasani, head of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, a group the government tolerates.

The court, established to prosecute communists and other opposition groups, is thought to have been inactive for much of the 1980s. Since it resumed its activities in the early 1990s, it is thought to have tried thousands of people, the report said.

"No one can estimate the number of people being prosecuted by the SSSC," said Hasani, who has appeared before the SSSC for 20 years in his capacity as lawyer.

According to the report, the court fails to provide the basic elements of a fair trial. Defendants have limited access to lawyers, the report said, and proceedings do not include a systematic examination of evidence. The court does not investigate allegations that confessions were extracted under torture, the researchers found.

"This is an illegitimate court, and we have been asking for its abolition for years," said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Damascus.

The report says the largest number of defendants were Islamists accused of espousing radical ideas. It says those trials were part of a crackdown on Islamists starting in 2004. Among those arrested were people accused of "just being in possession of CDs and books by radical imams, and at the end of the spectrum those accused of being part of al-Qaeda," the report says.

Houry said Syria is not the only country under threat from radical Islamists. "It happens everywhere from Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt to Europe and the U.S. We criticize the SSSC for the same reasons we criticize the Guantanamo prison: There needs to be evidence that a person has committed or is planning to commit an act of violence before arresting him," he said.

Though Islamists constitute the majority of the court's recent defendants, the report said 153 bloggers, activists and private citizens have been tried on vague charges such as weakening national sentiment or awakening sectarian tensions.

"This is not a court. This is just a means to legitimize the rulings of security apparatuses," said Mohammad Abdallah, a Syrian human rights activist now living in the United States who was tried by the court on charges of publishing false information.

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