Scientists and Human Rights in Syria
Scientists and Human Rights in Syria
REPRESSION OF SCIENTISTS
President Hafez al-Assad, a former military officer, has maintained tight political control over Syria during the more than 20 years he has ruled the country. Assad was a lieutenant general and minister of defense when he ca
me to power in a coup d'etat on November 13, 1980. Basing his authority on both the military and the Ba'ath Party, he ousted and jailed those elements of the Ba'ath Party and other political groups that opposed him. In national referenda held every 7 ye
ars since 1971, Assad has been "elected" and "reelected" president by overwhelming majorities, usually in the 99 percent range.
According to the 1992 human rights report of the U.S. Department of State (1992:1,604), President Assad "wields almost absolute authority" over a regime that "does not hesitate to use force against its citizens when it feels
it is threatened." In the early 1980s, for example, following wide-spread popular unrest, the government reportedly killed 10,000 to 20,000 Syrian citizens when it ruthlessly crushed a rebellion in Hama and other cities. From 1979 to 1982, more than 1,00
0 political detainees were reportedly executed in Syrian jails by security forces. Until the recent amnesties, 7,500 people or more were reported to be in detention for political reasons both in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon.
Even with the releases of more than 3,500 people in 1991, there may still be more than 4,000 in political detention in Syria. Many of them have been held without charge or trial for lengthy periods, some for more than two d
According to Middle East Watch (1992c:7), Syria has "one of the highest rates of detention without charge in the world" and "some of the world's longest held prisoners": Of the population of 12 million, it estimates that 1 Syrian in 3,000 is in politic
President Assad relies on three institutions to maintain his rule: the army, the ruling Ba'ath Party, and the security services. A state of emergency in force since 1963, when the Ba'ath Party first seized power, gives the
security forces wide powers to arrest and detain persons indefinitely if they are suspected of opposition to the government or of endangering public security and order. It also suspends most of the human rights guarantees in the Syrian constitution.
During the late 1970s a movement began in Syrian professional circles calling for the lifting of the state of emergency and the institution of safe-guarding against human rights abuse. The Bar Association initiated the movem
ent, and the engineers' and medical associations quickly followed suit. (It is relevant to note that in 1979 the Syrian government ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a U.N. treaty guaranteeing a broad range of fundamental
human rights.) In March 1980, in joint meetings, the three associations called on the government to release political detainees, allow freedom of expression and association, and end the state of emergency. The associations repudiated violence of any ki
nd (in contrast to the fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood, which at the time was engaged in violent protests against the Syrian government). When the government failed to enact human rights reforms, despite promises to do so, a 1-day national strike was c
alled for March 31 by the bar, medical, pharmacists', and engineers' associations. The government thereupon dissolved the associations and arrested hundreds of their members.
For more than 10 years the Syrian government refused to provide information about any of our detained scientific colleagues. Repeated requests and appeals by the CHR and other human rights organizations went unanswered. Ex
ceptions did occur, however, when Arab professional organizations intervened. When Arab medical associations meeting in Algiers in the spring of 1980 protested the detention of the General Secretary of the Syrian Medical Association, the Syrian governmen
t is reported to have released him (although scores of other health professionals remained imprisoned).
The government also responded to the intercessions of the Arab Lawyers Union (Cairo), and by 1989 all of the lawyers detained in 1980 had been released.
CHANGING POSITION ON HUMAN RIGHTS
Syria's desire to improve its relations with the West appears to be largely responsible for its recent readiness to make some human rights concessions. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left Syria without the strong backi
ng it had enjoyed from the communist bloc since the 1960s and forced it to develop closer ties to Western governments. Worldwide movements for democracy and human rights have also had their impact, making the Syrian government more inclined to take steps
to improve its human rights record.
Although many observers have called most of the improvements "cosmetic," they have in fact created a better climate and produced some important results. In both 1989 and 1990 the government allowed demonstrations in front of
the presidential palace by the mothers and wives of political prisoners and disappeared persons. In 1989 representatives of Amnesty International, participating in a conference held in Damascus, had discussions with the Syrian vice president and other g
overnment officials, the first such contacts by Amnesty International since 1978. Prior to President Assad's "reelection" on December 2, 1991, between 700 and 800 political detainees were released from Syrian jails, mostly women prisoners and members of
banned political parties. On December 18, 1991, Radio Damascus announced that an additional 2,864 detainees had been released by presidential decree. By all accounts, both announcements have proved to be true. On March 31, 1992, a presidential amnesty
brought the release of 500 detainees, including elderly prisoners and persons who had committed economic crimes. In December 1992 another amnesty freed 554 persons charged with state security offenses. In April 1992 it was announced that travel and pro
perty restrictions on the Syrian Jewish community would be lifted (Friedman, 1992).
And for the first time, an international human rights organization, the International Commission of Jurists, was allowed, in March 1992, to send an observer to the closing session of a political trial in which engineers and health professionals were inv
olved (Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1992b). In December 1992 Amnesty International was allowed entry to observe a political trial.
RECENTLY FREED SCIENTISTS, ENGINEERS, AND HEALTH PROFESSIONALS
Many of the colleagues released in the recent amnesties were prominent members of the scientific, engineering, and medical communities who had been held for lengthy periods of detention without charge or trial. Some had been
active members of the engineers' and medical associations and had supported their calls for human rights and political reform. Among those recently released
for a complete list):
Riad al-Bastati, former secretary general of the Damascus branch of the Syrian Engineers' Association, held for more than 11 years;
Muhammad Nabil Salim, professor of soil mechanics and head of the Department of Civil Engineering at Aleppo University, held for more than 11 years;
Jalal Khanji, lecturer in electrical engineering at the University of Aleppo, held for more than 11 years;
Jalal Msouti, assistant professor of mechanical and electrical engineering at the University of Damascus, held for more than 11 years;
Ghassan Najjar, mechanical engineer and lecturer at the University of Aleppo, held for more than 11 years;
Mamoun Sawah, electrical engineer in private practice in Damascus and general manager of Schindler Elevator Company, held for more than 11 years;
Abdul Al-Hadi Akhras, civil engineer and prominent building contractor in private practice in Aleppo, held for more than 11 years;
Mahmoud al-Jaziri, professor of surgery in the Faculty of Medicine, Damascus University, held for more than 11 years;
Salman 'Abdallah, 61-year-old economist and former member of the National Command of the Ba'ath Party, held for more than 20 years.
Although the CHR welcomes these releases, it notes that the prisoners had been arbitrarily arrested and held without charge or trial on political grounds for lengthy periods of time. A substantial number of those detained ma
y have been tortured. Most, if not all, had no access to legal counsel.
Moreover, recently released colleagues who were university faculty members are reportedly not being allowed to resume their university careers. The following university professors of engineering and medicine reportedly have
been barred from returning to their posts, presumably because of their political beliefs and associations, and have received no compensation for their period in detention:
Muhammad Karamee Baddura, former professor of engineering at the University of Damascus;
Jalal Khanji, former lecturer in engineering at the University of Aleppo;
Jihad Msouti, former assistant professor of mechanical and electrical engineering at the University of Damascus;
Ghassan Najjar, mechanical engineer and former lecturer at the University of Aleppo;
Muhammad Nabil Salim, former professor of soil mechanics and head of the Department of Civil Engineering at Aleppo University;
Muhammad Nizar al-Daqr, former professor of dermatology at the University of Damascus;
'Abd Al-Ra'uf 'Ubaid, former professor of neurology at the University of Aleppo.
The CHR has learned that this practice may not previously have been the case. For example, Asif Shaheen, a professor of mechanical engineering reportedly released from detention in 1986, was allowed to return to his teaching post at the University of Dam
Recently released engineers who worked for private companies or who had been self-employed have received no compensation for their period in detention. Some of the companies they worked for, however, have offered to reemploy
them, and some have returned to private practice. It is ironic that engineers who worked for the government have fared best. Those who were detained but not tried have reportedly been allowed to return to their positions and have received back pay. Si
milarly, doctors released from detention have been able to resume their work in public hospitals. Those seeking to resume their private practices have been placing announcements in newspapers to inform their former patients of their return. The CHR does
not know whether Syrians are discouraged from patronizing health professionals and engineers formerly in detention. One doctor interviewed by the CHR said that some of his family members and friends were afraid to see or speak with him after his release
and that they presumably would be too frightened to visit him professionally.
Releases of scientists, engineers, and health professionals have gone hand in hand with new arrests of others who engage in human rights work, undertake political activities, or express their political opinions.
In late 1991 and early 1992, 17 people were arrested for participating in the activities of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). This organization was set up in 1989 as an unofficial human rights group
to campaign for the lifting of the state of emergency, the release of political prisoners, and respect for individual freedoms. The activities of the people arrested included human rights monitoring and questioning the fairness of a presidential referend
um (won by President Assad with 99.9 percent of the vote in December 1991). The charges against them included disseminating "false information" injurious to the security of the state, undermining "confidence" in the Ba'ath revolution, belonging to an ill
egal organization, and withholding information.
Three of the 17 arrested are in scientific fields, and their cases were taken up by the CHR; two remain in prison:
Muhammad Ali Habib, a lecturer in engineering at the University of Latakkiya, sentenced to 9 years' imprisonment with hard labor; he was reportedly mistreated during interrogation and is being held in Saidnaya Prison.
Nizar Ben Ali Naif (Nayyuf), a sociologist, was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment with hard labor; according to trial observers, he was unable to walk into the court room unaided because he had apparently been tortured; he
is being held in Saidnaya Prison.
The third scientist who was arrested, Samir Nu'aysa, a civil engineer, was sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment for withholding information from the security forces about his brother Aktham, an active CDF lawyer, who was sentenced to 9 years' imprisonment;
Samir Nu'aysa was released in May 1992 after 5 months in prison.
Although these defendants were charged and tried an improvement over the practice of indefinite detentionthe trial was held in a state security court, and the charges were highly questionable. According to lawyer
s' organizations which monitored the trial, the proceedings violated basic human rights standards. Some of the defendants had clearly been tortured, lengthy sentences were meted out for the nonviolent expression of political opinion, and no appeal was al
lowed (see Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1992b). Moreover, in the case of Nizar Ben Ali Naif (Nayyuf), his wife and 23-month-old daughter were initially detained as hostages to induce him to give himself up for questioning. And Samir Nu'aysa was a
pparently arrested and imprisoned because of the activities of his brother and his failure to report them.
There have been other recent arrests of engineers and physicians. An engineer, Munzir Jum'a, and physicians Muhammad Ghanim and 'Abd al-Aziz al-Khayyir have been detained without charges since February 1992 for suspected mem
bership in the prohibited Party for Communist Action. According to our information, they were held incommunicado following their arrests and later transferred to Saidnaya Prison, where they are awaiting trials by state security courts. (In the case of a
l-Khayyir, there are unconfirmed reports that he may have already been sentenced to 8 years' imprisonment by a state security court.)
At the end of August 1992 the government reportedly began state security proceedings against some 600 political detainees, most of whom had been held without charge for between 5 and 12 years. Groups of eight to ten detainee
s were reportedly brought before state security courts every few days and charged with belonging to banned political parties and opposing or obstructing the goals of the Ba'ath revolution. None of the verdicts was subject to appeal. Lawyers enlisted to
defend the prisoners have found that the trials violate basic standards of due process (Collello, 1982:280; Middle East Watch, 1992c:35-39).
Among the 600 prisoners facing state security trials are believed to be a number of cases which would fall under CHR's mandate. As noted above, physician `Abd al-Aziz al-Khayyir may have been tried and sentenced. In additio
n, other scientific colleagues are also reported to be facing trial for suspected involvement in the Party for Communist Action or the Communist Party Political Bureau, including physicians Muhammad Ghanim and Ahmad Faiz al-Fawwaz; pharmacist Nicola al-Za
hr; engineers Fateh Jamous, Munzir Jum'a, Adnan Abu Janab; and geologist Nihad Nihhas. In addition, engineers Salim Khairbek and `Abd al-Karim Darwish are reported to be facing trial for opposition political activities.
Of the cases listed above, the government was reportedly prepared to release Adnan Abu Janab, Salim Khairbek, and Nicola al-Zahr in the 1991 amnesties but the three refused to sign statements that they would renounce politica
l activities and party affiliations and so were kept in detention. For insisting on their right to political expression, they now face prison sentences over and above the many years they have already spent in detention.
for details of the above cases.)
ILL-TREATMENT OF PRISONERS
The Syrian Constitution (Article 28:3) prohibits "physical or moral torture" or "humiliating treatment." So too does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7), which Syria ratified. But it is well
documented that torture is regularly used in political cases during interrogation and, in may instances, has led to permanent injury. According to the U.S. Department of State (1992:1605), there were "numerous credible reports of widespread and systemat
ic torture, primarily during arrest and interrogation in political or security-related cases, and often in specially equipped torture chambers". Amnesty International (1987) has identified 35 different types of torture used on political prisoners in Syri
Individuals whose cases CHR has undertaken have been among those tortured. Ghassan Qassis, for example, a lecturer in civil engineering at the University of Damascus "was reportedly shot in the hands at the time of his arrest in September 1987 and alle
gedly tortured shortly afterwards by being suspended from a ceiling by his wrists for prolonged periods, causing some paralysis." He was reportedly arrested both for human rights activities and suspected involvement in a prohibited political party. Arre
sted along with him was Nizar Maradni, an assistant professor at the University of Damascus, who was reportedly "suspended from a ceiling by his wrists and later dropped to the floor, fracturing his pelvis" (Amnesty International, 1992:21).
The Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture in Toronto reports that Syrian torture survivors treated by the Centre have been in "consistently serious condition and have required extensive treatment."
In 1992, the Canadian Centre treated nine Syrian victims of torture, including one engineer and one dentist. The victims had been exposed to "systemized beatings, electric shocks, prolonged imprisonment and severe deprivation. In one instance a man wa
s put on a wheel which was then rotated". Another victim "sustained scarring all over his body." The incidents took place between 1979 and 1990.
The CHR was able to take testimony from a scientific colleague who was tortured while in detention a few years ago for suspected involvement in a banned political party. To protect him and his family, neither his name nor pr
ofession will be revealed. Immediately following his arrest, he was taken to an interrogation center where he was blindfolded, told to undress, and then "beaten with cable wire while tied down on two pieces of wood shaped like a cross." He was also subj
ected to electric shocks and made to stick his head and one of his legs in a tire so that his body was contorted while the tire was turned. With wounds still open and bleeding, he was placed in a small, dark and dirty cell and remained in solitary confin
ement for more than 100 days.
Engineers and health professionals have also died in detention, according to reputable human rights sources. Dr. 'Umar al-Shishhakli, president of the Syrian Ophthalmological Society and officer of the Hama Medical Associati
on, was reportedly tortured and executed by security forces in late 1980 or early 1981. Eight or more other doctors were reportedly killed by security forces or disappeared in Hama at that time. In a more recently reported case a civil engineer, Munir F
ransis, died on or about April 14, 1990, of internal bleeding following severe beatings while in detention. He had been arrested after antigovernment slogans were written on walls in Yabrud, north of Damascus. One of the slogans reportedly said, "Today
Ceausescu Romania, tomorrow Ceausescu Syria." A health professional who saw Munir Fransis at Muwassat Hospital prior to his death said: "His legs were black, his back looked like a map, and his face and head were swollen... The flesh on his feet was ripp
ed off." When a doctor refused to sign a certificate that Fransis had died of natural causes, the doctor was reportedly arrested but then subsequently released (Amnesty International, 1992:31-33, Middle East Watch, 1990:21; 1992c:28; CHR sources).
Engineers and health professionals are reported to have also "disappeared " while in detention (see
). It is not known, for example, whether Moudar al-Jundi, a 34-year-old engineer from Tartus, is still alive. He was arrested in 1987 for suspected involvement in a banned political party.
According to CHR sources and others (see U.S. Department of State, 1992:1605), most political detainees do not receive proper medical attention. Many fall ill in prison, particularly those held for lengthy periods in substa
ndard conditions. Prisons and detention centers are often crowded and unsanitary, with poor ventilation. Prisoners have staged hunger strikes to protest the neglect of health and hygiene in the cells and the withholding of medicines.
One well-known example of neglect in prison is the case of Dr. Nour al-Din al-Atassi, a surgeon and the former president of Syria, who was held in detention without charge or trial for more than 22 years;. Dr. al-Atassi was
among a group of former government officials arrested in November 1970 immediately following the coup that brought President Assad to power. Members of the group were accused of refusing to cooperate with the new government. In April 1992 Dr. al-Atassi
reportedly suffered a heart attack in al-Mezze Military Prison and was said to be in critical condition. In May 1992 the CHR sent an appeal to President Assad in his behalf and urged that he be given proper medical attention. Reports had indicated tha
t Dr. al-Atassi, who suffered from diabetes and hypertension, was in poor health due to inadequate medical care during his lengthy detention. While being treated at Tishrin Military Hospital in Damascus , it was discovered that he had developed a maligna
ncy during his detention. According to CHR sources, Syrian military authorities had known Dr. al-Atassi had cancer for at least seven months before they treated it or informed him about it. By that time, the cancer had spread to his liver and bones. Dr
. al-Atassi was released from detention on August 28; in mid-November he flew to Paris, where he died at the American Hospital on December 3 of cancer of the esophagus.
The CHR has learned that at different public and military hospitals, such as Muwassat Hospital and Tishrin Military Hospital, two or three rooms are set aside for detainees and prisoners who have been badly tortured or are se
riously ill. Doctors at these hospitals are instructed by security agents to treat victims of torture but to "ask no questions." If they refuse, they can be punished with one or two weeks in detention.
Agents of Political Security (Amn al-Siyassi) or Military Intelligence (Mukhabarat al-`Askariyya) are said often to make arrests by arriving at an office and asking the person to come with them for "a cup of coffee" for "five
minutes," after which the detainee is taken to an interrogation center. Many are then tortured and held incommunicado for monthssometimes even yearswithout their families being informed of the reasons for their arrest or the place of their d
etention. One well-known professor of engineering from the University of Damascus, Muhammad Karamee Baddura, was reported to have been held in a military interrogation center from 1980 to 1990 without any contact with his family. No one, in fact, is said
to have known anything about him for those 10 years. Security forces reportedly have even arrested and held family members incommunicado after they have persistently sought information about their relatives.
After interrogation, prisoners are generally transferred to military or civil prison, although some have been kept for years in interrogation centers. Prisoners generally fare better in civil prisons than in military prisons
. In civil prisons, most detainees are allowed visits from their families, although visitation rights are often arbitrarily granted and prisoners are physically separated from their visitors by wire mesh or bars. Most political prisoners are held in "wi
ndowless underground cells, or in giant communal cell blocks with open-mesh roofs." Those in interrogation centers are held "three to six feet below ground level" (Middle East Watch, 1992c:1, 11). No political detainees are allowed to receive mail. As
noted above, to gain their release political prisoners have to agree in writing to certain conditionsi.e., to cease all political activity, to openly declare support for the Assad regime, and to report anything that might threaten the security of th
e state. According to CHR sources, security agents explain this latter condition to mean violence against the state. But at the same time, prisoners suspected of involvement with banned political parties are asked orally if they will inform on anyone wh
o asks them to join or become politically active in a particular party. They also must sign statements that they will no longer continue their membership or activities in particular political parties even if they never admitted having been a member of th
Some prisoners, according to Amnesty International (1992:27-30), are held beyond the length of their sentences. In the case of detainees who have not been sentenced, they are generally not told that they will be freed until
the actual day of their release. Former prisoners have told CHR that rather than return to their home directly, they have made a point of telephoning their relatives first in order to prepare them and help them cope with "the shock" of their release.
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