Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 11 Table of Contents
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November 2001 


Intelligence Briefs: Syria

Two Opposition MPs Go on Trial
Cabinet Reshuffle Expected in Coming Weeks
119 Political Prisoners Released

Riyad Sayf
Two Opposition MPs Go on Trial

Separate trials of opposition MPs Mamoun al-Homsi and Riyad Sayf opened on October 30 and 31, attracting the attendance of numerous opposition figures and human rights activists. Both are charged with conspiring to change the Syrian constitution "by illegal means" (a euphemism for disputing the ruling Ba'ath party's governing credentials) and "inciting dissension between faiths," while Sayf faces additional charges of forming a "secret society" and planning "subversive meetings." The defendants, both of whom spearheaded demands for political reform since the ascension of Syrian President Bashar Assad last year, were arrested on August 9 and September 5.

Both were openly defiant during the proceedings, emboldened, perhaps, by the presence of diplomatic representatives of the United States, the European Union and several other Western countries. "He rejected the charges read out by the judge and countered that it was the state which violated the constitution by arresting him," said Sayf's lawyer, Anwar Bunni, shortly after his initial hearing. Homsi, who arrived at the courtroom draped in a Syrian flag, shouted at the judge, "Repressing our freedoms is not acceptable . . . it violates the law and the constitution," before being barred from speaking further.

Eight other political detainees who were arrested in recent months, including Riyad al-Turk, the head of the Communist Party Political Bureau (CPPB), have been indicted on similar charges, but will be tried before the high state security court, whose verdicts cannot be appealed. Lawyers for the eight defendants have complained that they have been denied access to their clients.

Cabinet Reshuffle Expected in Coming Weeks

Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to appoint a new cabinet in the next few weeks, his first major government reshuffle since inheriting power from his late father in June 2000. According to reliable sources in Damascus, all but five or six members of Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa Miru's cabinet will be replaced, most notably the ministers of the economy and finance, so as to pave the way for implementation of economic reforms. According to one source, three new ministries - sport and youth, expatriate affairs, and science and technology - will be created.

The new government will be announced sometime before Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim feast marking the end of Ramadan, in mid-December. A broader purge targeting managers of state-owned companies, several governors, and the leaders of local branches of the ruling Ba'ath party is expected to follow in the coming months.

119 Political Prisoners Released

Syria released 110 political prisoners on November 24, commemorating the 31st anniversary of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad's seizure of power in 1970. Most of the detainees were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including several arrested in connection with the 1979 massacre of 20 Alawite army cadets and a 1980 attempt to assassinate the late President Hafez Assad. The release was not mentioned in the Syrian press, an omission apparently intended to avoid antagonizing members of the regime's predominantly Alawite military-security complex who opposed the amnesty. On November 19, eight members of the banned Communist Workers Party and one member of the pro-Iraqi wing of the Ba'ath party were released by the Syrian authorities.

According to Aktham Nueisa, the head of the Committees for the Defense of Human Rights in Syria, some of the detainees had been imprisoned for 15 years. Nueisa called upon the government to grant an amnesty to all remaining political prisoners in Syria, estimated to number over 1,000.


2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.
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