Scientists and Human Rights in Syria
Scientists and Human Rights in Syria
As reflected in the text of this report, Syria has been, and may well still be, the country with the highest number of scientists, engineers, and health professionals detained for political reasons. Although recent amnesties
announced by the Syrian government have freed more than 3,500 political detainees, no lists of those released have been published. Because of this lack of information and because of the secretive manner in which human rights cases are handled by the Syr
ian government, it has been impossible to confirm exactly how many of the 287 persons whose cases have been undertaken by the Committee on Human Rights (CHR) have been freed; our sources indicate that at least 49 are no longer incarcerated. The Committee
on Human Rights hopes that by publishing this report and circulating its lists, the Syrian government will be encouraged to give an accounting of those who have been released and those who remain in detention. We also hope to focus attention on the plig
ht of Syrian scientists, engineers, and health professionals and encourage international efforts in their behalf.
The prolonged detention on political grounds of so many colleagues in the science and health fields has been of long-standing concern to the committee. Of the 49 scientists known to be released, many were held without charge
or trial for more than 11 years. Of the 238 scientists who may still remain in detention, their periods of incarceration have also been of considerable length. According to our information, of the university professors we know to have been released, no
t one has been allowed to resume his or her university career.
The committee continues to receive information about new arrests of scientists, engineers, and health professionals. Moreover, the professional associations of engineers, medical professionals, and pharmacists are now under
strict government control Following their adoption of resolutions in support of human rights reform, these essentially autonomous associations were dissolved by the government in 1980 They were then recreated under government supervision, with their act
ivities and relationships with scientists abroad closely monitored.
The Committee on Human Rights, created in 1976, includes members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Under its mandate, the committee wo
rks in behalf of scientists, engineers, and health professionals who are detained, imprisoned or exiled, or who have disappeared, for the nonviolent exercise of their fundamental rights. It also promotes investigation and prosecution in cases of colleagu
es who have been killed for political reasons (see
For more than a decade the Syrian government did not acknowledge our appeals or respond to our requests for information about detained scientists, engineers, and health professionals. In 1991, however, as the Syrian governme
nt sought to improve its relations with the West and gain greater international acceptability, it became somewhat more receptive to our efforts.
In response to our request, in February 1992 the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Walid al-Moualem, met with a CHR delegation. The delegation, which I chaired, was composed of Roberta Cohen, CHR senior adviser; E. Wil
liam Colglazier, executive director of the National Research Council's Office of International Affairs; Gerald Dinneen, foreign secretary of the NAE; and Jerome Karle, Nobel laureate and CHR member. We presented our lists to the ambassador, requested the
names of those freed, and urged the speedy release of all scientific colleagues who remain in detention on political grounds. We also requested information about the cases of colleagues who reportedly had died in detention. Delegation members emphasize
d that given significant human rights improvements, they would be willing to explore how U.S. scientists and scientific organizations could work together with their colleagues in Syria.
Several months after this meeting, the NAS received an invitation from the Supreme Council of Sciences in Syria to participate in a Science Week to be held in Damascus on November 7-13. NAS President Frank Press responded th
at, in accordance with the delegation's position when it met with Ambassador Walid al-Moualem, the NAS would be interested in participating if its delegates to the conference, Milton D. Van Dyke of the NAE, Alicia H. Munnell of the IOM, and a professional
staff member, could arrive in Damascus a few days before the conference to discuss concerns about the plight of scientific colleagues in Syria. Unfortunately, the government of Syria rejected the proposal. Accordingly, plans for the delegation to visit
Damascus were canceled.
We would have preferred to have had the benefit of a visit to Syria prior to the publication of this report in order to include the views of government officials and other information we might have gathered. We believe, how
ever, that even without a visit, we have sufficient information, which includes eyewitness testimony, to publish this report about the human rights situation in Syria. We consider that the seriousness of the situation makes it essential that we do so.
The report was written by Roberta Cohen, our senior adviser. It was edited by CHR director Carol Corillon and Eugenia Grohman of the National Research Council staff, with research and editorial assistance also provided by CHR
program officer Patricia Evers. We are grateful, too, to Eric Stover, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, for his assistance.
Committee on Human Rights
National Academy of Sciences
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