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Monday, 6 August, 2001, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Syrian opposition leader speaks out
Syrian read the first non-government newspaper
Syrians have begun to enjoy new political freedoms
By Caroline Hawley in Amman

One of Syria's most famous opposition figures, Riad al-Turk, has made his first public appearance since being released from jail in 1998.

At a meeting at a private home in Damascus, the former communist leader called for a transition from, as he put it, despotism to democracy.

Hundreds of people turned out to hear Syria's best-known former political prisoner speak.

Bashar al-Assad
Assad: Greater tolerance of dissent
Some were crammed onto the stairs of the building, others struggled to listen from outside.

Mr Turk, who is now more than 70, spent more than 17 years in jail for his opposition to the late president Hafez al-Assad.

He spoke of the change of atmosphere that new President Bashar al-Assad had brought to Syria.

But he warned there were still people within the regime who wanted to preserve their own interests by blocking reform, and called on reformers to stand together against them.

When President Assad succeeded his father last July, a series of unprecedented political gatherings were organised in private homes by intellectuals pressing for democratic change.

Although technically illegal under Syria's emergency law, the authorities tolerated the new forums until February, when most were effectively suspended.

Mr Turk was speaking at one of the few forums that is still operating.

The most famous of the forums is now run by an outspoken MP, Riad Seif, who says he is planning to resume its activities next month - with or without permission.

See also:

17 Jul 01 | Middle East
Analysis: Syria's economic challenge
17 Jul 01 | Middle East
Bashar: A year of cautious reform
20 Jun 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Syria
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