AMMAN (Reuters) - Syria’s government passed a draft law on Tuesday to lift 48 years of emergency rule, a concession to unprecedented demands for greater freedom in the tightly-controlled Arab country.
State news agency SANA said the cabinet ratified draft legislation “to end the state of emergency in Syria.” President Bashar al-Assad must still sign the legislation for it to take effect, but his signature was a formality, a senior lawyer said.
Inspired by uprisings sweeping the Arab world, thousands of Syrians have held demonstrations across the country demanding reforms, presenting Assad with the most serious and sustained challenge to his 11-year rule. Rights groups say more than 200 people have been killed in the unrest.
SANA said the cabinet, which has little power and rubberstamps Assad’s orders, also passed a law to abolish a special security court which human rights lawyers says violates the rule of law and the right to fair trial.
It also passed legislation to “regulate the right of peaceful protest.” Permission from the Interior Ministry will be needed to demonstrate in Syria, the news agency said.
One activist dismissed the cabinet decision, saying Assad himself could have lifted emergency law immediately. “The government doesn’t need to issue anything ... It’s in the hands of the president to lift it,” Ammar Qurabi said.
A senior international lawyer said the new law regulating demonstrations, which were banned under the state of emergency, would still mean “you have to ask permission from the Assad family to demonstrate.”
The announcement came hours after activists said Syrian forces opened fire to disperse protesters in Homs, where 17 people were killed on Sunday night.
Rights activists said at least three more protesters were shot dead in the latest shooting early on Tuesday. SANA reported that four people, two policemen and two gunmen, were killed in clashes in the city.
The government says Syria is the target of a conspiracy and authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and infiltrators supplied with weapons from Lebanon and Iraq, a charge opposition groups say is unfounded.
The protests, the most serious since an armed revolt by Islamists in 1982, comprise all shades of society, including ordinary Syrians, secularists, leftists, tribals, Islamists and students. The protesters’ rallying cry has been “Freedom, Freedom. God, Syria and Freedom only. Some shouts of Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) resonated after Friday prayers.
Assad, who has ruled for 11 years since assuming power on the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, has responded with a combination of limited concessions and fierce crackdowns.
In a sign that authorities would offer no ground to protesters, the Interior Ministry on Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by “armed groups belonging to Salafist organisations” trying to terrorize the population.
Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam which many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al Qaeda. Assad and most of his inner circle are from Syria’s minority Alawite community, adherents to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Dozens of medical students demonstrated at Damascus University’s college of medicine on Tuesday chanting “Stop the massacres. Syria is free. Syria is dignity,” two rights campaigners in contact with the students said. They said security forces beat the students to break up the protest.
In Deraa, where the protests first broke out and which has seen most bloodshed, residents said on Tuesday that security forces who stayed off the streets in recent days were being reinforced, possibly ahead of a move to reassert full control over the restive Sunni Muslim town.
Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Hemming