Syria cabinet okays new election law, arrests continue

AMMAN Tue Jul 26, 2011 6:23pm EDT

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AMMAN (Reuters) - The Syrian cabinet approved on Tuesday a new election law as part of a package of democratic reforms, the national news agency said, prompted by four months of street protests demanding the toppling of President Bashar al-Assad.

Assad has begun unveiling new laws to placate expanding street protests. His critics say the measures offer few concessions while a bloody repression intensifies.

The law regulates elections to parliament, a rubber-stamp assembly elected every five years but effectively appointed by Assad's ruling Baath Party and security agencies that answer directly to the 45-year old president, and sets up a commission to "manage elections and guarantee their integrity."

Opposition figures have dismissed the new laws as cosmetic, pointing to continuing arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators and the killing since March of more than 1,500 civilians. More than 12,000 Syrians have been arrested, including prominent dissidents, lawyers and human rights campaigners.

Syria's cabinet, which has no political power, approved earlier this week a law that allows the formation of political parties other than the Baath party, provided they adhere to "democratic principles."

Assad and his family, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, hold absolute power, commanding the Baath Party and the security apparatus, which play a main role in ensuring loyalty to the president among the executive branch, the army and parliament.

Under the constitution, Assad has to pass an unopposed referendum every seven years to remain president. Official results gave him 97.2 percent of the vote when he succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, and 97.6 percent in 2007.

The Baath party, which has banned opposition groups since a l963 coup, has been under pressure to abandon its monopoly on power during the uprising against Assad's autocratic rule.

The Syrian National Human Rights Organization, led by opposition figure Ammar Quarabi, said in a new report that hundreds of Syrians were arbitrarily detained in the last few days and the country has become "a big prison."

"The authorities are continuing their course of illegal arbitrary arrests, and persecuting political activists, intellectuals and ordinary people," the report said. "Hundreds of Syrians have gone missing."

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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