Syrian diplomats systematically harassing emigre dissidents, says Amnesty International

Amnesty has documented cases of intimidation by Syrian diplomats involving more than 30 activists in eight countries including Britain, Canada, France, Germany and the US.

An anti-Assad protester holds up a red heart with Arabic word reading 'the freedom' during a demonstration against the Syrian regime in Homs province, Syria. AP Photo / Homs Quarters Union
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LONDON // Syrian embassy officials have been systematically harassing emigre dissidents in a bid to silence their protests against the government's crackdown, Amnesty International said yesterday.

The London-based watchdog said it had documented cases involving more than 30 activists in eight countries - Britain, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the US.

It urged host countries to "take stronger action against Syrian embassies accused of orchestrating this kind of harassment and intimidation", and to protect the rights of Syrians abroad.

"Expatriate Syrians have been trying, through peaceful protest, to highlight abuses that we consider amount to crimes against humanity - and that presents a threat to the Syrian regime," said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty's Syria researcher.

"In response the regime appears to have waged a systematic, sometimes violent, campaign to intimidate Syrians overseas into silence."

Amnesty said in many cases protesters outside Syrian embassies were initially filmed or photographed by officials then subjected to harassment of various kinds, including phone calls, emails and Facebook messages warning them to stop.

Some activists told the watchdog they were directly threatened by embassy officials. Naima Darwish, who set up a Facebook page to call for protests outside the Syrian embassy in Santiago, Chile, was contacted directly by a senior official who asked to meet her in person.

"He told me that I should not to do such things," she told the watchdog. "He said I would lose the right to return to Syria if I continued."

A number of Syrians said their families back home were targeted by security forces, apparently to deter them from their activities overseas.

After Malek Jandali, 38, a pianist and composer, performed at a pro-reform demonstration in front of the White House in July, his mother and father, aged 66 and 73 respectively, were attacked at their home in Homs and have since fled the country, Amnesty International said.

"We look to host governments to act on credible allegations of abuses," Mr Sammonds said, He said many dissidents were "too scared of what could happen to them to make formal complaints with the police.

"We would expect that any official found responsible for such acts should be prosecuted, or - if diplomatic immunity prevents that - asked to leave the country," he said.

Activists in Syria said on Monday that Syrian troops going house to house have detained more than 3,000 people in the past three days in the town of Rastan, which saw some of the worst fighting of the six-month-old uprising recently, activists said.

Over the past week, the military fought hundreds of army defectors who sided with anti-regime protesters in Rastan. The fighting demonstrated the increasingly militarised nature of the uprising and heightened fears that Syria may be sliding towards civil war.

The activist group Local Coordination Committees said fighting in the town has now stopped after the military operation that left dozens dead. The group and a Rastan-based activist confirmed about 3,000 in the town of 70,000 had been detained. The activist said the detainees are being held at a cement factory, as well as some schools and the Sports Club, a massive, four-storey compound.

"Ten of my relatives have been detained," said the activist, who asked that he be identified only by his first name, Hassan.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Associated Press