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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Assad declares amnesty for protesters, opposition says ‘Too little, too late’

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday decreed a general amnesty for Muslim Brotherhood members and political prisoners after two months of deadly anti-regime protests, while at least 15 demonstrators were killed and 100 people injured during an assault by Syrian security forces that began the previous day.

“President Assad has by decree issued an amnesty on all crimes committed before May 31, 2011,” Syria’s state-run SANA news agency said.

“The amnesty applies to all political prisoners as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood,” it said.

However the Syrian opposition quickly dismissed Mr. Assad’s general amnesty as “not enough.”
 This measure is insufficient: we demanded this amnesty several years ago, but it’s late in coming 
Abdel Razak Eid
“This measure is insufficient: we demanded this amnesty several years ago, but it’s late in coming,” said Abdel Razak Eid, an activist from the “Damascus Declaration,” a reformist group launched in 2005 to demand democratic change.

“We are united under the slogan: the people want the fall of the regime and all those who have committed crimes brought to account. Blood will not have been spilled in vain,” he said.

Opposition activists have gathered in Turkey for a three-day meeting to discuss democratic change and voice support for the revolt against Mr. Assad’s authoritarian regime.

Meanwhile several protesters were killed as government forces backed by tanks, artillery and helicopters continued a crackdown on rallies that began in mid-March, attacking the towns of Talbisseh and Rastan near central Homs, said Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Four soldiers were killed and 14 were wounded in Talbisseh, according to SANA.

At least 15 people were shot dead in Rastan and Talbisa, towns in the flashpoint central region of Homs, an activist told Agence-France Presse, declining to be identified for security reasons.

Among those killed was “a little girl called Hajar al-Khatib.”

“Two bodies were found at dawn on Monday in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs,” which the security forces had closed off with several roadblocks, said the activist, who said he had a list of names.

Government forces have carried out widespread arrests since protesters took to the streets in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, after 13 people were killed in nationwide rallies by security forces on May 27 following Friday prayers. Those killings pushed the death toll past 1,100 since demonstrations against the government of President Assad began, according to Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights.

United Nations rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the crackdown on Syrian protesters, saying the actions were shocking in their disregard for human rights.

“The brutality and magnitude of measures taken by the governments in Libya and now Syria have been particularly shocking in their outright disregard for basic human rights,” Ms. Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Resort to lethal or excessive force against peaceful demonstrators not only violates fundamental rights, including the right to life, but serves to exacerbate tensions and tends to breed a culture of violence,” Ms. Pillay said, according to Reuters.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) also renewed a call to the Syrian regime to allow a fact-finding mission to visit the country.

Syria’s deputy foreign minister, meanwhile, accused Western powers of seeking a return “to the colonial era” in his country by initiating action against Damascus at the United Nations.

“It is about imposing hegemony on Syria and using the United Nations as a way of re-establishing colonialism and to justify interference,” the minister, Faisal Meqdad, said.

However, Egypt on Monday urged Mr. Assad’s regime to enact reforms to satisfy pro-democracy protesters, according to Agence-France Press.

“We hope that the Syrians in a peaceful manner resolve their problems,” Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi of Egypt told reporters during a trip to India. “Whatever reforms the people would like, it should be looked at in a positive manner.”

The European Union announced sanctions on Syria on May 23 aimed at the highest level of leadership, as well as a review of aid programs. The US froze the assets of Mr. Assad and top officials. In a May 19 speech, President Barack Obama urged the 46-year-old president to stop the killing and lead a peaceful transition to democracy or get out of the way.

Syria’s government has blamed the unrest on Islamist militants and terrorist elements seeking to destabilize the country. Mr. Assad initially promised reforms in response to the protests, which followed popular uprisings that ousted rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. Those pledges haven’t been repeated in recent weeks as security forces stepped up their crackdown.

More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and at least 10,000 arrested in a brutal crackdown by the regime on the protests, human rights organizations say.

Foreign journalists are barred from travelling around Syria, making it difficult to report on the unrest and verify witness accounts.

(Sara Ghasemilee, an editor at Al Arabiya English

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