Human Rights

Human rights in Syria have been described as "poor". From 1963 until April 2011,the emergency rule had remained in effect which gave security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.

The country is governed by a one-party state without free elections. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government. Freedom of expression, association and assembly are strictly controlled. Women and ethnic minorities face discrimination. According to Human Rights Watch, President Bashar al-Assad failed to improve Syria’s human rights record in the first 10 years of his rule, and by the eleventh (2011), Syria's human rights situation had become one of the worst in the world. According to Amnesty International, the government may be guilty of crimes against humanity based on "witness accounts of deaths in custody, torture and arbitrary detention," during the crackdown against the 2011 uprising.


In 1926, the Damascus military court executed 355 Syrians without legal representation and public hangings were frequent. Hundreds of Syrians were sentenced to death in absentia, prison terms of various lengths and life imprisonment with hard labor. In 1925-1927, military forces publicly displayed mutilated corpses in central squares in Damascus and villages throughout Syria.

In 1982 Hafez al-Assad responded to an insurrection in the city of Hama by sending a paramilitary force to indiscriminately kill between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians including children, women, and the elderly.

Amnesty International reports that women have been subject to discrimination and gender-based violence.

For several years, the "watchdog organization" Freedom House has rated political rights in Syria as "7" — the "least free" rating on its scale of 1 to 7 — and given Syria a rating of "Not Free".

According to the 2008 report on human rights by the United States State Department, the Syrian government's "respect for human rights worsened". Members of the security forces arrested and detained individuals without providing just cause, often held prisoners in "lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention", and "tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees". The regime imposed significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, amid an atmosphere of government corruption. According to Arab Press Freedom Watch, the current regime has one of the worst records on freedom of expression in the Arab world, second behind North Korea on Earth. According to Arab Press Network, "despite a generally repressive political climate", there were "signs of positive change," during the 2007 elections. According to a 2008 report by Reporters without Borders, "Journalists have to tightly censor themselves for fear of being thrown into Adra Prison."

In 2009 Syria was included in Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" section and given a rating of 7 for Political Rights: and 6 for Civil Liberties. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2009 Syria’s poor human rights situation had "deteriorated further". Authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers, and imposed travel bans. Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants. No political parities were licensed and emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remained in effect.

During the 2011 Syrian uprising, a UN report described actions by the security forces as being "gross violations of human rights". The UN report documented shooting recruits that refused to fire into peaceful crowds without warning, brutal interrogations including elements of sexual abuse of men and gang rape of young boys, staking out hospitals when wounded sought assistance, and shooting of children as young as two.In 2011 Human Rights Watch stated that Syria's human rights situation is among the worst in the world.


Judicial process

Syria has a long history of arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and prolonged detention of suspects. Thousands of political prisoners remain in detention, with many belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party. Since June 2000, more than 700 long-term political prisoners have been freed by President al-Asad, though an estimated 4,000 are reportedly still imprisoned. Information regarding those detained in relation to political or security-related charges is not divulged by the authorities. The government has not acknowledged responsibility for around 17,000 Lebanese citizens and Palestinians who "disappeared" in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s and are thought to be imprisoned in Syria. In 2009, hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned for political reasons. Military Police were reported to have killed at least 17 detainees. Human rights activists are continually targeted and imprisoned by the government.


Political prisoners
Among the scores of prisoners of conscience arrested in 2009, and hundreds political prisoners already in prison, some of the more prominent prisoners were

  • Kamal al-Labwani, a prisoner of conscience who had three years added to his 12 year sentence for allegedly “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”, on account of remarks he was alleged to have made in his prison cell.
  • Nabil Khlioui, an alleged Islamist from Deir al-Zour, who with at least 10 other Islamists "remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of 2009.
  • Nabil Khlioui and at least 12 other alleged Islamists, mostly from Deir al-Zour, were arrested. At least 10 of them remained in incommunicado detention without charge or trial at the end of the year.
  • Mesh’al al-Tammo, the killed spokesperson for the unauthorized Kurdish Future Current group, who was `held incommunicado for 12 days and charged with “aiming to provoke civil war or sectarian fighting”, “conspiracy” and three other charges commonly brought against Kurdish activists,` charges that could lead to the death penalty.
  • Twelve leaders of a prominent gathering of opposition groups, the Damascus Declaration, continue to serve 30-month prison terms. Among those detained is Riad Seif, 62, a former member of parliament who is in poor health.
  • Habib Saleh was sentenced to three years in jail for “spreading false information” and “weakening national sentiment” in the form of writing articles criticizing the government and defending opposition figure Riad al-Turk.
  • one released prisoner was Aref Dalila. He had served seven of the ten years in his prison sentence, much of it in solitary confinement and in increasingly poor health, for his involvement in the so-called “Damascus Spring” before being released by a presidential pardon
  • In June 2010, Mohannad al-Hassani, head of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights (Swasiya) and winner of the 2010 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, was convicted of "weakening national morale" and "conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation". He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Sednaya prison alone houses more than 600 political prisoners. The authorities have kept many for years behind bars, often well past their legal sentence. The estimated 17,000 prisoners who have disappeared over the years suggests that Syria may have hidden mass graves.

In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch reported on the continued detention of "thousands" of political prisoners in Syria, "many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party." According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee that there were 4,000 political prisoners held in Syrian jails in 2006.


Freedom of religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricts this right. While there is no official state religion, the Constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence, an expansion of Sharia Islamic law, is a principal source of legislation. According to the U.S. Department of State's "International Religious Freedom Report 2007", the Constitution provides for freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that the religious rites do not disturb the public order. According to the report, the Syrian Government monitored the activities of all groups, including religious groups, discouraged proselytism, which it deemed a threat to relations among religious groups. The report said that the Government discriminated against the Jehovah's Witnesses and that there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups, some attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation.

LGBT rights in Syria

Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, prohibits having homosexual relations, i.e. "carnal relations against the order of nature", and provides for at least three-years imprisonment.

In 2010 Syrian police began a crackdown that led to the arrest of over 25 men. The men were charged with various crimes ranging from homosexual acts and illegal drug use, to encouraging homosexual behavior and organizing obscene parties.

Freedom of movement

The secret police prevents people from even approaching embassies of foreign countries, making difficult to get a visa to travel abroad. Furthermore, Syrians can
not leave the country without an "exit visa" granted by the authorities.

Freedom of speech and the media

The number of news media has increased in the past decade, but the Ba'ath Party continues to maintain control of the press. Journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tried. In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria number three in a list of the ten worst countries in which to be a blogger, given the arrests, harassment, and restrictions which online writers in Syria faced.

Internet censorship in Syria is extensive. Syria bans websites for political reasons and arrests people accessing them. Internet cafes are required to record all the comments users post on chat forums. Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, Youtube and Facebook have been intermittently blocked in the past. Filtering and blocking was found to be pervasive in the political and Internet tools areas, and selective in the social and conflict/security areas by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2009. Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders' Enemy of the Internet list since 2006 when the list was established.

In addition to filtering a wide range of Web content, the Syrian government monitors Internet use very closely and has detained citizens "for expressing their opinions or reporting information online." Vague and broadly worded laws invite government abuse and have prompted Internet users to engage in self-censorship to avoid the state's ambiguous grounds for arrest.

The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed by the government in September 2009. It was the country’s only NGO specializing in media issues, Internet access and media monitoring during election campaigns. It had operated without government approval, and had monitored violations of journalists’ rights and had taken up the cause of the ban on the dissemination of many newspapers and magazines.

Ethnic and racial discrimination

Syria is home to 1.7 million Kurds who constitute 10% of the population, forming the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in the country. They were denied citizenship until April 2011 (Decree 49).

Additional information