BEIRUT (Reuters) - A Syrian opposition figure said on Monday he expected President Bashar al-Assad would scrap hated emergency laws to try to quell protest but replace them with equally harsh legislation couched as anti-terrorist measures.
“Assad is being subjected to internal and external pressures. He has prepared a plan to give the impression to public opinion that he has begun reforms,” Homsi, who was jailed for five years for demanding broader political freedoms, told Reuters from exile in Canada.
“Instead of emergency law, there’ll be an anti-terrorism law,” he said, citing information from “people close to the Assad regime.”
Assad has been facing the biggest challenge to his rule since popular protests demanding greater freedoms and an end to corruption erupted two weeks ago and spread to parts of the capital Damascus and the coast.
Assad’s adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said after the protests took the ruling elite by surprise that emergency law would be lifted but has not given a timetable
The Baath Party imposed the law when it took power in a 1963 coup. Lawyers say the law has been used by authorities to ban protest, justify arbitrary arrests and closed courts and give free rein to the secret police in the country of 22 million.
“With regards to lifting emergency law, this is misleading and a trick. Lifting it will not prevent raiding homes (at will) in Syria,” said Homsi, a former member of the Syrian parliament.
He said Assad would probably announce new regulations in the form of a decree. This would then be sent to parliament for automatic approval.
“The law could include a clause against any group or person carrying out actions that would affect national security. And it would be under the guise of terrorism.”
Police and prosecutors could be left with freedom to interpret what constitutes terrorism or a threat to national security.
The former businessman was jailed for five years in 2001 after taking part in the a movement for political freedom and democratic change that became known as the Damascus Spring and placed hopes on Bashar to change the autocratic political system he inherited from his late father Hafez al-Assad.
Homsi dismissed official statements hinting that Assad could change the nature of Syria as a police state.
He said he had information that Syrian intelligence operatives had rounded up 200 young men on Sunday across Syria, including the Damascus suburb of Darayya, Zabadani on the border with Lebanon, and the northern city of Aleppo.
Activists said at least hundreds of people have been arrested in the last two weeks across Syria. Residents in Deraa, the focal point of protests, also said on Monday security forces had been arresting people in the city.
A senior diplomat in Damascus told Reuters he doubted Assad, who contained a violent Kurdish uprising in 2004, would scrap emergency law without replacing it with “something just as bad.”
The protests, which first erupted in the mostly Sunni city of Deraa 11 days ago, took Assad by surprise. In January he said the unrest facing Tunisia and Egypt would never happen in Syria.
Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on “armed gangs” as well as Islamists, the same language, Homsi recalled, that Hafez al-Assad used before sending in troops to crush an uprising in the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands.
He said a similar scenario could arise after introduction of an anti-terrorism law.
“This is a cover for new massacres,” Homsi said. “They just want to snuff out the uprising in hours.”
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