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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 21:47 GMT
Syrian intellectuals urge reform
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria
Assad: Under growing pressure to implement political reforms
Over 1,000 Syrian intellectuals have signed a petition urging President Assad to implement political reforms.

It calls for the release of political prisoners and the lifting of a state of emergency in place for 40 years.

The organisers hope more than 1m people will sign by the time the document is presented to the government next month.

The president has ignored similar petitions in the past, but his country has come under intense pressure from Washington in recent months.

The petition, organised by a group called the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, will be handed to the government on 8 March, the anniversary of the ruling Baath party's rise to power.

Last month, President Assad released more than 100 political prisoners and he freed more than 600 prisoners in 2000.

Under US scrutiny

The petition says Syria has been languishing under the duress of emergency law since 1963, with the impact felt in all fields of public life.

The signatories are demanding that the government shuts down special state courts where defendants have no right of appeal and that it puts a stop to arbitrary arrests.

The petition is not the first presented by Syrian intellectuals calling for political reform.

Although previous moves have been ignored, Syrian democracy activists say this time the situation is different.

One of those who signed the petition - a lawyer and human rights activist - told the BBC that recent events on the international stage had encouraged them to launch the petition, and he said there are rumours that President Bashar al-Assad has already referred the issue of the continued state of emergency to the Supreme Court.

For the past year, Syria has been under an intense American spotlight.

The Syria Accountability Act, recently passed by the US Congress, imposed sanctions on Damascus for alleged links to terrorism and for seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

The Syrian activists say they are hoping the regime may have realised that reform and national reconciliation are an important defence against American pressures.

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