Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 11 Table of Contents
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December 2000 

Bashar Breaks with the Past . . . Gradually
by Gary C. Gambill

Mazzeh prison
Mazzeh prison
President Bashar Assad took a series of dramatic steps last month to soften domestic and international perceptions of the Syrian regime's notorious human rights record, including the release of over 600 political prisoners, the declaration of a general amnesty, and the closure of Mazzeh prison. While these measures were much more limited than those demanded by the regime's domestic and international critics, they suggest that Assad is launching a concerted drive to recast the nature of civil obedience to the regime and bolster his personal popularity. By gradually lifting the reign of terror in Damascus, he hopes to secure a measure of willful and voluntary obedience from the public, and in the process, insulate himself from challenges within the regime itself--members of the so-called "Old Guard" are not likely to risk overthrowing a leader widely perceived to be a liberalizing reformer.

These measures were preceded by the emergence of openly expressed demands for political freedoms from Syria's resurgent civil society. In September, a statement by 99 Syrian intellectuals, published in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, called upon the regime to end the state of emergency and martial law that has been in effect since 1963, issue a pardon for all political detainees, and recognize freedom of expression. The last two months have also witnessed the reemergence of an unauthorized, but now tolerated, human rights group called the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Syria. Formed in 1989, the Committee was eradicated in 1991 by the arrest of its president, Aktham Naaiseh, and other top leaders. The government released Naaiseh for health reasons in 1998. The group held an organizational meeting in September, electing a new board of trustees, eight of whom live inside Syria, and has been extremely vocal in demanding a general amnesty and the release of political prisoners.1 For Bashar, the choice was clear--either eliminate the group through arrests and intimidation (a solution favored by several of his aides) or co-opt its base of support.

Political Prisoners Released

On November 15, Assad issued a decree freeing 600 political prisoners, who were subsequently released in the days that followed. While the names have not been officially published, sources in Syria have indicated that the vast majority are affiliated with various Syrian Islamist and leftist opposition groups. Unlike previous prisoners released by the regime, they weren't asked to sign a pledge not to engage in political activity against the regime.

About 380 of the released detainees were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which waged a bloody insurrection against the Syrian regime in the 1980's. While most of those freed were rank-and-file members, the release included a few leading figures in the group, such as Haytham Qanbaz, a prominent leader from Hama who had been given a suspended death sentence prior to his release. About 20 of those released had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The release also included 8 members of the Islamic Liberation Party (Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami), a shadowy offshoot of the Brotherhood that is virulently opposed to reconciliation with the Assad regime. Representatives of the group have said that 1,200 of its members were arrested by Syrian security forces in December 1999 and January 2000.

Syrian sources say that 22 members of the Communist Workers Party headed by Riad al-Turk, who was himself released from prison last year, were also freed. The party was banned in the 1980's and most of its leaders were imprisoned in 1987 on charges of membership in a secret organization and conducting illegal activity against the state. Sources close to the group said that most of its leaders remain in prison.

Also freed were 30 members of two splinter factions of the ruling Ba'ath Party--a pro-Iraqi faction which calls itself the Ba'ath Regional Command and the Ba'ath Democratic Party. Several members of the Communist Action Party were also released.

Muslim Brotherhood Supervisor-General Ali Sadreddin al-Bayanouni said that the release was a "step in the right direction," but urged that Assad take steps to allow exiled political leaders to return and abrogate Law 49 of 1980 which makes membership in the Brotherhood punishable by death.

Amnesty International cautiously welcomed the release and expressed hope that "this is just the start and the release of all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners who have been detained for years without trial will follow." The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) called it "the first important step in [support of] human rights taken by President Bashar Assad," but cautioned that thousands of political prisoners remain behind bars.

Over the summer, Bashar ordered the release of dozens of Muslim Brotherhood and Communist Action Party members, as well as three Jordanians who had been imprisoned on political charges and two military commanders of the Lebanese Islamist group Harakat al-Tawhid al-Islami (The Islamic Unity Movement), who were arrested after launching a failed insurrection against Syrian forces in Tripoli in December 1986.2

Lebanese press reports in late November and early December indicated that a handful of Lebanese detainees were included in the release and that around 50 other Lebanese held by Damascus would be freed later this month. According to Imad al-Sharqawi, head of a committee in Amman campaigning for the release of an estimated 600 Jordanians held by Syria, no Jordanians were freed last month.

The General Amnesty

On November 22, Syrian Minister of Justice Muhammad Nabil al-Khatib announced that a sweeping General Pardon Law designed to give imprisoned convicts an opportunity to "return to social life as effective and productive members . . . and observe this law without deviation" had been issued by President Bashar Assad and approved by parliament to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Corrective Movement launched by the late Hafez Assad. "This great offering by the great heart will instill happiness, joy, thanks and gratitude in the heats of children, spouses, brothers, fathers and sons" and "proves the leader's love for the masses and his concern for the needs and requirements of the homeland and citizens."3

The general amnesty pardons all those sentenced for violations of the military service law, as well a variety of other common criminal offenses, such as smuggling (with the exception of drug smugglers and those who opened fire on security forces) and fraud (on the condition that they return stolen money to the victims within one year). Those who were convicted in absentia and are still at large cannot benefit from the amnesty unless they surrender to authorities within three months. The law also reduced by one-third the prison sentences of those convicted of economic crimes. All together, thousands of incarcerated Syrians are believed to be covered by the amnesty.

Mazzeh Closes its Doors

On November 19, Assad issued a decree closing Mazzeh prison, one of the country's most notorious detention centers, in order to "erase it from the memories" of his people. According to conflicting press reports, the prison is to be converted into either a hospital, a historical institute or a political science academy.

The two-story prison, perched on a hilltop overlooking Damascus, was built by the French in the 1920's. After Syria's independence, it officially became a military prison, though most of those confined in the 300-person capacity jail have been political prisoners. Former Syrian President Hosni al-Zaim, who seized power in 1948, first used Mazzeh to jail his political opponents, a practice continued by successors. Notable political figures said to have been held in the jail at one time or another include five former Syrian presidents: Shukri al- Quwatli, Amin al-Hafez, Nazem al-Qudsi, Nureddin al-Attasi and the late Hafez Assad.

Notwithstanding the words posted at the entrance to the prison, "Whoever enters is lost and whoever leaves is reborn," Mazzeh was less a reeducation center than a dumping ground for the detention and torture of the Assad regime's enemies. The commander of Mazzeh, Capt. Bassam Hassan, was a notoriously cruel man, said by former prisoners to have sought inspiration for torture techniques by watching horror films.


The above-mentioned measures should not be considered a significant reduction in the coercive capacity of the Syrian regime. There are no signs that Assad is contemplating the annulment of a 1963 martial law decree, which permits the regime's various security agencies to arrest (or re-arrest) anyone for any reason, despite persistent appeals from human rights groups and exiled Syrian dissidents to formally establish safeguards against arbitrary arrest.

Syrian journalist Sobhi Hadidi recently complained (from exile) that while the release of 600 detainees was a positive development, the symbolic portrayal of the release as a "gift" marking the 30th anniversary of the Corrective Movement is disturbing. "This move could have become a landmark on the road of radical change," writes Hadidi, " . . . projected as a political amnesty aimed at healing the wounds of the past." Instead, it was celebrated as a vindication of the past.4

While the closure of Mazzeh has symbolic significance, sources in Syria say that the prison was closed mainly for technical reasons. First, the dilapidated structure of the compound had been deemed beyond repair and most of the detainees in the prison had already been transferred to other facilities months ago. Second, the suburb of Damascus where Mazzeh is located had blossomed into a major residential area for regime elites over the years and the presence of the prison came to be regarded as unseemly.

In any case, there are said to be around 30 other prisons in Damascus and Aleppo alone, as well as numerous basement detention centers affiliated with the regime's various security agencies. The closure of Mazzeh, writes Hadidi, is "not part of a broader process of fundamental change that would have a clear impact on daily life."5

Perception is everything in politics, and it is undeniably true that perceptions of the Assad regime, both within Syria and abroad, are changing dramatically as a result of symbolic measures undertaken by the young Syrian dictator. But is raising expectations of a kinder, gentler regime without undertaking systematic political reforms a viable method of preserving authoritarian rule in Syria? Is there an inherent contradiction in Assad's slogan of "change through continuity"?

Perhaps. The release of political prisoners, says one Damascus-based political analyst, may "inspire a 'crisis of truth' as the public is reminded of exactly how many people the government has held in confinement . . . especially as so many Syrians have not known the whereabouts of family members for over 20 years."5 The magnitude of the Assad regime's horrendous human rights record can no longer be swept under the rug as hundreds of former detainees return to their families.

Assad may find it necessary to make a much greater symbolic break with the past, one that acknowledges the collective suffering and trauma inflicted on the population by his father. Once this Rubicon is crossed and the official myth of the late Assad's benevolence is definitively shattered, the young dictator's principal claim to legitimacy will also be shattered. Unless he forges an alternative claim to legitimacy through systemic political and economic reform, his future at the helm in Damascus is uncertain.


  1 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001, December 2000.
  2 See Hashem Minqara: Free at Last, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, September 2000.
  3 Statement by Minister of Justice Muhammad Nabil al-Khatib, SANA News Agency, 22 November 2000.
  4 Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 24 November 2000.
  5 Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 24 November 2000.
  6 Middle East International, 24 November 2000.

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