Page last updated at 17:36 GMT, Saturday, 11 July 2009 18:36 UK

Syria renaissance excludes human rights

By Lina Sinjab
BBC News, Damascus

In a quiet neighbourhood in the centre of Damascus Michel Kilo sits in his small flat sipping coffee as his wife shells beans for lunch.

Syrian sits in a cafe as US President Barack Obama speaks in cairo 04.06.09
Syrians talk openly about global and regional but not domestic politics

His TV is tuned to an Arabic news channel, his reading glasses sitting on his nose as he catches the latest developments from Tehran.

Weeks after finishing a three-year prison sentence, Mr Kilo dedicates his time to family life, while the enthusiasm that characterised his writing before his arrest is now directed solely at articles focusing on pan-Arab and regional issues, rather than local ones.

In 2006, Mr Kilo and 10 other activists were arrested after signing the Damascus-Beirut declaration.

The statement, backed by Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals, called for normalising bilateral relations after decades of Syrian domination of its smaller neighbour Lebanon.

International thaw

At the time, with Syria under severe international pressure, the authorities' tolerance of the move was very limited.

Damascus faced accusations of supporting insurgency in Iraq, and involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Dissident Syrian writer Michel Kilo
Mr Kilo was in prison for three years after signing the declaration

But today, the situation has changed. The country is no longer isolated by the West and key Western leaders have approached Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help stabilise the region.

The country has attracted both foreign investment as well as tourism - signs it is beginning to come in from the cold.

But the authorities show no sign of relinquishing the tight control which the Baath Party has exerted since it took power in a 1963 coup and banned all opposition.

"The priority is not to have any opposition or independent voices and it is successful in oppressing this scene," says Yassin Haj Saleh, a writer and human rights activist.


A campaign of arrests has left an estimated 6,000 people in jail as political prisoners.

Meanwhile, about 400-450 people are subject to official travel bans, although the real number could be in the thousands, human rights groups say.

The measures are extended to young bloggers and some internet users, as well as civil society activists and some artists.

Civil society needs to be revived and reactivated and this is only in the hands of the authorities"
Mohannad al-Hassani
Lawyer and human rights activist

"There is a continuous deterioration in the human rights situation in Syria," says lawyer and head of Syrian Human Rights Organization Mohannad al-Hassani.

But the worst situation is suffered by the Islamists, according to Yassin Haj Saleh.

"There are many young people who are arrested for their Islamic affiliation, but they are not organised. They are mostly villagers and their families are being harassed and pressured," he says.

The crackdown has attracted little media attention, especially in suburbs and rural areas.

Last year, riots erupted in Sadnaya prison. A number of prisoners were reported killed. The government said then the prisoners were Islamists.

Human Rights Watch recently called on the Syrian government to provide information on the incident.

"The Syrian government should end the anguish of the prisoners' families, disclose the names of those injured or killed, and immediately grant them access to their loved ones," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

'Lack of vision'

There is no organised opposition in Syria, just individuals who oppose government policies.

And even these figures are fragmented and lack vision says Omar Amirallai, an intellectual and filmmaker.

"The opposition in Syria is in need of self-criticism, reform and reconciliation," he says.

But others believe that even with more vision and organisation, their efforts will come to nothing under current government restrictions.

The streets of Damascus have the feel of a relaxed and bustling city.

Around cafe and restaurant tables, discussions are heated about global and regional politics - but no one talks about the political situation in Syria.

Mohannad al-Hassani believes the country should embrace international and regional changes with its own progress on the level of civil and human rights.

"Civil society needs to be revived and reactivated and this is only in the hands of the authorities.

"They should look into these needs seriously as it is difficult for Syria to continue in isolation from what the whole world is moving towards."

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