NEW YORK Syria's authorities were among the worse violators of human rights last year, jailing lawyers, torturing opponents and using violence to repress ethnic Kurds, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
The rights organization's annual report referred to two lawyers, 80-year-old Haitham al-Maleh and 43-year old Mohannad al-Hassani who were sentenced to three years' imprisonment each, as "heroes" for championing the plight of Syria's political prisoners and paying for it with their own freedom.
"Syria's bleak human rights record stood out in a region where bad performers are legion," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on the report.
Another lawyer, Radeef Mustafa, who is a member of the Kurdish Human Rights Committee, faced disciplinary proceedings by a government-controlled lawyers' syndicate.
"To date, Syrian officials have denied all registration requests from human rights groups," the report said.
There was no comment from the Syrian government. Officials have said country's political prisoners have violated the constitution, which was heavily amended during the rule of President Hafez al-Assad to entrench the Baath Party's monopoly on power.
The Baath Party, which is now headed by Assad's son President Bashar al-Assad, has ruled Syria since 1963 when it seized power in a coup, banning opposition and enacting an emergency law which is still in force.
The report said Human Rights Watch received "credible reports that security agencies arbitrarily detained dissidents and criminal suspects, held them incommunicado ... and subjected them to ill-treatment and torture."
"At least five detainees died in custody in 2010, with no serious investigations into their deaths by the authorities," the report said.
Syria's Kurds, who number about 1 million out of a population of 21 million, were subjected to "systematic discrimination," including refusal to give citizenship to an estimated 300,000 Kurds born in Syria.
The report said security forces shot at a crowd of Kurds celebrating the Kurdish New Year in the northern city of Raqqa to disperse them, killing at least one person.
"There can be no rule of law in Syria as long as its feared security services remain above the law," the report said.
(Editing by Andrew Dobbie)