AMMAN (Reuters) - The Syrian authorities’ arrest of a leftist opposition figure overnight suggests that a bill passed by the government to end emergency rule after 48 years will not halt repression, rights campaigners said on Wednesday.
The draft law was passed on Tuesday as a concession by President Bashar al-Assad in the face of increasingly determined mass protests against his authoritarian rule. More than 200 people have been killed, rights groups say.
The end of emergency rule was, however, coupled with new legislation requiring Syrians to obtain a permit from the state if they want to hold demonstrations. Defiant protests continued regardless, and three protesters were shot dead in the city of Homs on Tuesday, activists said.
A prominent leftist in the city, Mahmoud Issa, was taken from his house around midnight by members of Syria’s feared political security division. Rights campaigners said at least 20 pro-democracy protesters had been shot dead by security forces in Homs in the past two days.
“Issa is a prominent former political prisoner. Arresting him hours after announcing a bill to lift emergency law is reprehensible,” said Rami Adelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, speaking from Britain.
“Lifting emergency law is long overdue, but there are a host of other laws that should be scrapped, such as those giving security forces immunity from prosecution, and giving powers to military courts to try civilians,” he added.
“Thousands of political prisoners arrested under these exceptional laws should be released,” Abdelrahman added.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations made it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive regime.
“This new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced,” he said, adding that the Syrian government “needs to urgently implement broader reforms.”
Prominent civic figures in Homs, a central city known for its intellectuals and artists, signed a declaration calling on the army “not to spill the blood of honorable Syrians” and denying allegations by the authorities that Salafist groups were operating in the city.
In a sign of resistance to protesters’ demands for reforms, the Interior Ministry on Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by “armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations” trying to terrorize the population.
Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam that many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al Qaeda. Assad and most of his inner circle are from Syria’s minority Alawite community, who adhere to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
“Not Salafist, not Muslim Brotherhood. We are freedom seekers!” hundreds of people chanted in Tuesday’s demonstration in Banias on the Mediterranean.
Emergency rule, in place since the Baath Party seized power in a 1963 coup, gave security organs blanket power to stifle dissent through a ban on gatherings of over five people, arbitrary arrest and closed trials, lawyers say.
Syria is involved in several Middle East conflicts. Any change at the top — Assad, backed by his family and the security apparatus, is Syria’s absolute ruler — would ripple across the Arab world and affect Syria’s ally Iran.
The leadership backs the Islamist movement Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah but seeks peace with Israel. Assad was largely rehabilitated in the West after years in isolation after the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.
Editing by Tim Pearce