Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 56

Human Rights

By Carol A. Macha

Human Rights Activists Arrested and Tortured in Syria

Syria is detaining several lawyers and human rights activists on charges of violating Syrian state of emergency laws. As reported by both the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Middle East Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, these detentions violate Syria's obligations under several international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the U.N. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. The detentions have resulted in the sentencing of six Syrian human rights workers to prison terms of up to 10 years of hard labor, according to the human rights organizations.

The Syrian government actions represent a reversal of Syria's recent moderate political behavior, and have been met with dismay by the human rights groups monitoring Middle East affairs. In November and December 1991, coinciding with President Hafez Al-Assad's re-election effort for a fourth sever-year term, nearly 2,000 political detainees were pardoned. This release was welcomed by human rights advocates.

On Nov. 17, Syria's parliament unanimously endorsed sole candidate Assad for a fourth term. A popular referendum on Dec. 2 approved his re-election by a 99.98 percent vote, according to the Syrian government. Following Assad's re-election, however, a political crackdown on opposition and dissent has resumed, Middle East Watch reports.

The detainees who are the focus of current international attention all are members of the Committee for the Defense of Political Reforms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF). The most prominent activist detained is attorney Aktham Nu'aissa. Syria regards human rights activities as political in nature and therefore restricts this activity to groups within the Ba'th Party structure. The CDF, as an independent organization, is not recognized by the Syrian government. Although only six defendants have been brought to trial, Middle East Watch reports that at least 50 other CDF supporters and their relatives have been arrested and detained.

Following the re-election of President Assad, the CDF circulated leaflets criticizing the referendum. The CDF statement charged that the Syrian government had contrived popular support for the Assad government, manipulated voter participation and spent approximately US $395 million wastefully on election activities.

The CDF proclamation called for genuine Syrian political reform that would permit the existence of independent political groups, the release of all political prisoners, lifting the state of emergency, cessation of political detentions and compliance with accepted international judicial standards. Shortly after the release of the CDF statement on Dec. 10, 1991, the 43rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its members were detained and held incommunicado until Feb. 29, 1992, when the defendants were brought to trial.

The trial of the CDF members violated many standards of international law covered in the ICCPR and the U.N. Charter, including the right to meet with counsel prior to trial, the right to a free and open public trial, and the right to appeal, as well as protection from physical torture and abuse during pre-trial detention. Court-appointed lawyers for the detained were only allowed to meet with their clients at the trial, and in full observation of the court. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has charged that the defendants were tortured during detention to extract confessions.

Aktham Nu'aissa was previously detained in 1982 for engaging in activities to free another autonomous organization, the Syrian Lawyers Union, from Syrian government control. That detention left him with severe kidney damage and temporary paralysis from torture, according to Middle East Watch. While in detention, he was hospitalized in February 1992, but was nonetheless sentenced to nine years' imprisonment.

Both the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Middle East Watch have called for the immediate release of the CDF political prisoners, medical attention to Aktham Nu'aissa and other prisoners who have suffered abuse, and investigations of the reports of mistreatment of prisoners. In the past, the government of Hafez Al-Assad has been unwilling to cooperate with international human rights groups.

Fallout From Moustafa Akawi Case in Israel Continues

The legal and political ramifications from the death of Moustafa Akawi in Israeli police custody in February (see the March 1992 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,) continue to manifest themselves in domestic Israeli politics. Israel's defense of its security services and their use of "moderate physical pressure" will now be publicly debated in the Israeli Supreme Court. The legality of police methods of interrogation and torture of Palestinian prisoners, to extract both information and confessions, will be argued in a case before Israel's High Court of Justice.

The case that will be heard by the High Court of Justice was filed on behalf of Murad Adnan Salahat by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization of professional Israelis working to prevent torture in Israel and the occupied territories. Mr. Salahat, 18 years old, alleges that he was tortured while in General Security Service (GSS) custody from Oct. 17 through Nov. 8, 1990.

The petitioners, led by attorney Avigdor Feldman, will be asking the court to declare illegal the guidelines for Palestinian detention and interrogation set fort in the 1987 Landau Commission Report. It is this Israeli government-appointed commission's report that acknowledged and condoned the use of "moderate physical pressure" by the Israeli security services in the questioning of Palestinian detainees. The arguments in the Salahat case hold that the Landau Commission, and the leniency it displayed toward physical abuse of Palestinian detainees, contravenes Israeli law. Section 227 of Israel's penal code prohibits physical force during interrogation. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and the Occupied Territories argues that this code should be applied to all Israeli citizens, and also to all residents of the occupied territories.

Although doubtful that the Israeli High Court will find completely for the petitioners, human rights activists are encouraged that the court has ordered the Israeli government to respond fully to the petitioners' claims. The Salahat case may allow Israeli detention and interrogation methods to be publicly debated, and possibly modified. 

Carol A. Macha, business manager of the American Educational Trust, is the human rights editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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