Assad calls an end to state of emergency

Civil rights campaigners welcome decision but will not celebrate until more sweeping reforms are made and "all of the work is finished".

DAMASCUS // For the first time in more than 48 years, Syrians will wake this morning to a country not governed under martial law, after president Bashar al Assad yesterday issued a decree ending the state of emergency.

It will be a moment that Syrian civil rights campaigners have worked towards for many years.

There were no real celebrations when the decree was unveiled, either by the authorities or opposition activists - an indication of how far the ground has shifted in the five weeks since anti-government demonstrations started.

State-run television made the announcement in a newsflash shortly after 3.30pm yesterday and then quickly returned to normal programming.

Civil rights campaigners and protest supporters similarly welcomed Decree 161 as a step forward - one they noted was paid for with the death of more than 220 people fatally shot during demonstrations. But they also stressed it was far from the final step required, as they push for sweeping reforms of Syria's autocratic state machinery.

"There will be a celebration about this one day," said Abdul Karim Rehawi, the head of the Syrian Human Rights League. "But not today, not until all of the work is finished."

Lifting the emergency laws technically restores the full Syrian Constitution, including the right to "freely and openly express" points of view in public, a guarantee of a free and independent press, and the right to meet and demonstrate peacefully.

Whether those constitutional rights will manifest on the ground or remain theoretical is a question that has yet to be answered, civil rights campaigners say.

"There will be more protests and the security forces will carry on as they have done up until now. They will not leave them alone," said one activist. "Let's be very clear about that, no one thinks this is over."

Human rights monitors said there were signs of dozens of arbitrary arrests being made last night in various cities and villages.

The first major test of post-emergency law Syria comes today, with anti-government activists calling for nationwide demonstrations, something that puts them firmly on a collision course with the authorities.

As the state of emergency was lifted, another presidential order was issued which, while acknowledging the constitutional right to protest, imposes significant restrictions on public demonstrations.

Under this new regulation, decree 54, which is effective immediately, any public protest will be considered a “riot” unless given advance permission by the ministry of interior – a process that takes at least five days – rendering all of today’s planned protests acts of public disorder.

Policing of demonstrations has, to date, been inconsistent, analysts say, with some allowed to take place peacefully while others have been broken up by security units using tear gas and assault rifles.

Last Friday’s protests passed without major violence but, throughout the week, security forces have killed about 20 protesters in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, human rights monitors say.

Government rhetoric has hardened this week, with the ministry of interior saying the country is now facing an armed insurrection by Islamic militants. Two high-ranking military officers were shot this week and their corpses then mutilated by “armed groups”, the authorities said.

In a statement, the new minister of interior urged ordinary Syrians to stay away from any public gatherings. Officials have repeatedly underlined that real political reforms are now under way, and that protests have been hijacked by foreign-backed insurgents aimed to destroy the country and start a sectarian civil war.

Activists dismiss the claim as scaremongering, with many blaming the authorities or pro-government gunmen for the violence.

In what anti-government campaigners said was an ominous sign, security units, including the army, had deployed in force yesterday around Homs, Latakia, Banias and Deraa.

“A high price in blood was paid to get the emergency law removed and I’m afraid that things haven’t even really started yet,” said one independent Syrian analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While many are apparently supportive of reforms, there are also widespread fears that too much change, too quickly, could be dangerous – a notion the president has himself consistently stressed. Despite the unprecedented outbreak of dissent, Mr Assad appears to remain popular with much of the Syrian public.

Another three presidential decrees were issued yesterday, in addition to the one ending the state of emergency. One abolished the Supreme State Security Court, which operated under martial laws to convict opponents to the regime, including political dissidents and alleged terrorists. All cases previously referred to the high court will now be handled by civilian courts and normal judicial processes. A second decree made it the work of civilian police units to investigate crimes and interview suspects – in theory replacing the role of other state security operations.

Syria has 15 different security branches, all of them powerful, largely autonomous and unaccountable. Analysts say it will be unlikely to relinquish the influence built up during decades of emergency rule, while human rights groups say even civilian courts remain far from impartial.

Also yesterday, Mr Assad appointed by decree a new governor for Homs, after the sacking of the previous one, in accordance with demands made by protesters in the city.

“If all of this had happened a month ago, everyone would be talking about it,” said a Syrian political commentator. “Now, we just wonder what the demonstrators will ask for next.”

Protests began with demands to release prisoners, scrap the emergency law and bring in a multi-party democratic system.

As they have spread, however, a growing number of protesters have begun to call for Mr Assad to step down.

Published: April 22, 2011 04:00 AM


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