Under pressure, Syria says more freedom possible

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 3:39 PM

DARAA, Syria -- The Syrian government pledged Thursday to consider lifting draconian restrictions on political freedom and civil liberties in an attempt to quell a week-long uprising that protesters say has left dozens fatally shot by security forces.

The pledges appeared unlikely to satisfy demonstrators in the southern city of Daraa, where thousands have been calling for liberty, defying the crackdown as they take to the streets for funeral marches.

Presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban blamed the unrest on outside agitators but told reporters in the capital, Damascus, that President Bashar Assad's government would consider lifting a state of emergency, in place since 1963, that allows people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial.

She said the government was drafting a law that would allow political parties besides the ruling Baath party, and loosen restrictions on media. It is also raising salaries for public servants, giving them health insurance, and looking at better ways to fight corruption, she said.

State TV also said Assad had ordered the release of an unspecified number of detainees held in connection with the unrest. Activists say dozens of people have been arrested.

Shaaban said Assad had given orders for security forces not to open fire in Daraa even if attacked but "there were, maybe, some mistakes."

Media access to the marches in Daraa was restricted but an Associated Press reporter heard sporadic bursts of gunfire echoing through the city in the afternoon. Almost all shops were shuttered, the streets were virtually empty and soldiers and anti-terrorism police stopped people at checkpoints and manned many intersections - the heaviest security presence since the unrest began.

An activist who is in contact with residents of Daraa told The Associated Press that massive crowds shouted "Syria, freedom!" as they marched toward one of the agricultural hub's main cemeteries.

Inspired by the wave of pro-democracy protests around the region, the uprising in Daraa and at least four nearby villages has become the biggest domestic challenge since the 1970s to the Syrian government, one of the most repressive in the Middle East. Security forces have responded with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said authorities had begun a campaign of detentions against activists, writers and bloggers in different parts of Syria.

Rihawi said the last to be detained was Mazen Darwish, a journalist who headed the independent Syrian Media Center. He said Darwish was summoned to a security office Wednesday noon and has not been seen since then. Also detained were well-known writer Loay Hussein and blogger Ahmad Hdaithi.

"These arrests will only increase tension," Rihawi said.

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