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The BBC's Barbara Plett in Amman
"These latest steps probably won't satisfy growing demands for more freedom"
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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 11:56 GMT
Political amnesty in Syria
Syrians gather in support of Bashar's nomination for the presidency
Syrians hope for more freedom under Bashar
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ordered the release of about 600 political prisoners belonging to various banned groups.

Legislation has also been proposed that would give a general amnesty for a broader range of crimes, the country's official media reported, without naming those to be set free.

One report said those pardoned included members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Communist Action League and other parties, as well as some Lebanese citizens.

These are innocent people who have spent years in jail

Muslim Brotherhood spokesman
The amnesty - the first granted by Bashar - coincides with the 30th anniversary of the rise to power of his late father, President Hafez al-Assad.

Bashar took office in July, following his father's death.

Since then, several dozen political prisoners, including members of the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood and communists, have been released.

Observers said the latest releases were part of Bashar's reform programme and a gesture of goodwill towards Lebanon, where Syria has 35,000 troops stationed.

Scope of amnesty

Syrian radio said the amnesty had been ordered under a bill sent to the People's Assembly by the president.

"The draft law stipulates dropping entire terms for misdemeanours, violations of military conscription law, and all other violations, including municipal and traffic violations and smuggling crimes," the radio said.

Detainees are normally released as soon as the relevant paperwork has been completed, which can take a day in Syria.

Prisoners charged with resisting the authorities with firearms are not covered under the amnesty.

'Years in jail'

A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in the United Kingdom could not confirm the move.

But he told The Associated Press news agency: "I hope it is true. These are innocent people who have spent years in jail."

Human rights organisations estimate that there are 1,300 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Syria.

The country's last political amnesty came in 1995, when 1,200 people, mostly Muslim Brotherhood members, were freed from prison.

Up to 25,000 people are believed to have died in 1982, when the government put down an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama.

President Assad, 34, promised wide political, economic and administrative reforms when he took power in July, and since then there have been growing calls within the country for more political freedom.

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See also:

26 Jul 00 | Middle East
Bashar frees political prisoners
16 Nov 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Bashar's slow, steady start
11 Jun 00 | Middle East
Bashar al-Assad: Eyeing the future
13 Jun 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Bashar's challenges
20 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
19 Jul 00 | Middle East
Syria timeline
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