Syrian security forces break up Damascus demonstration

At least 25 demonstrators are arrested as some supporters of the Syrian president say 'outside agitators', including Israel, are behind calls telling people to take to streets.

DAMASCUS // A powerful force of security officers, some wielding wooden batons, broke up a demonstration in Damascus yesterday by human rights activists and the relatives of political prisoners. It was the city's second consecutive day of public protests.

The security forces, many in plain clothes, dispersed the 100 or so protesters who had gathered near the interior ministry in the city centre. Many of the protesters were holding posters bearing photographs of imprisoned family members, demanding that they be released.

At least 25 of the demonstrators were arrested, according to activists, including Suhair al Attasi, a leading political campaigner; Mazen Darwich, a civil rights advocate; and Kamal Hussein Sheikho, a 33-year-old blogger who was freed from jail on bail only last Sunday.

The son and sister of Kamal Labwani, a doctor who is currently serving a 12-year jail sentence, were also detained, witnesses said, as was Tayyib Tizini, 69, a philosophy professor at Damascus University.

"As soon as the protesters lifted their pictures, the security forces attacked and took their signs and pushed them to the ground," said one human rights activist who was at the scene and who asked to remain anonymous. "The protesters had been peaceful and were standing quietly."

Shortly before the arrests, family members of eight political detainees had gone into the ministry and asked to see the interior minister in person, in order to give him a letter requesting freedom for all prisoners of conscience. The minster was not present, according to one activist, and when the families came out the security forces intervened.

A ministry official later told reporters it was not unusual to have an audience with prisoners' families, but that "some people exploited this occasion and infiltrated among the ranks of these families to launch some slogans".

A counter-demonstration, in support of the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, began about the same time in the same location, Marjeh Square, a landmark lined with restaurants, hotels and offices.

Families of political prisoners had announced in advance their decision to demonstrate, saying their protest was an act of desperation.

"After a long wait and rumours of an impending release of prisoners of conscience in Syria, our hopes have vanished," they said in a statement posted on the internet.

The detainees, some of whom have been jailed for years, include the prominent human rights lawyers Anwar Bunni and Muhannad al Hassani.

Numerous other engineers, doctors and writers have also been imprisoned, often under emergency laws imposed almost five decades ago that give sweeping powers to the government to quash dissent.

Those emergency laws, justified by the authorities as essential given the continuing state of war between Syria and Israel, also prohibit demonstrations or the public gathering of more than four people.

Yesterday's protest came less than 24 hours after a small group of young men marched through Damascus's Old City, chanting slogans and demanding liberty, before disappearing down side streets.

A video posted on the internet captured them shouting, "God, Syria, Freedom - is enough", a variation on commonly recited chant: "God, Syria, Bashar - is enough," referring to the president.

Two of the men involved in that protest have been arrested, according to some media reports, although human rights monitors have yet to confirm this.

Yesterday's small-scale but unprecedented public act of political rebellion was the first protest of its kind in Syria since the Middle East was thrown into turmoil by uprisings that have deposed autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

Mr al Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago, acknowledged in a recent interview that the region was changing and that political reforms were needed in his country. However, he insisted that the kind of widespread disaffection that had led to revolutions elsewhere did not exist in Syria.

The foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said at a press conference on Tuesday with the Spanish foreign minister that "steps towards introducing political reforms" would be taken by Damascus this year.

There has been limited official comment on the protest from Syrian authorities, but newspapers and websites sympathetic to the government have implied that they are being orchestrated by outside forces, in particular long-time foe Israel.

A report in Al Watan, a privately owned Syrian newspaper with close links to the government, said text messages originating at an Israeli military station, north of Tel Aviv, had been sent to mobile phones across Syria on Tuesday urging people to take to the streets.

One of the Syrians involved in the demonstration yesterday said he was unsure if there would be any future protests, given the sharp response of the security services, which, he said, had tried to stop anyone filming the incident.

"I don't see how any more demonstrations will come; they will all be prevented," he said.

Even so, there are indications that pressure on the authorities from Syria's weak and divided political opposition groups will continue.

Almost 90 leading political and civil rights activists have, to date, signed a petition supporting prisoners of conscience on hunger strike and demanding the abolition of martial law and an end to the special courts used to jail dissidents.