Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] on Friday criticized the human rights record [press release] of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad [BBC profile], claiming he has made virtually no progress on rights despite repeated promises for reform. In a report, "A Wasted Decade" [materials], released a day in advance of the 10-year anniversary of al-Asad's rise to power, HRW sharply criticized the human rights situation in the country today. Despite continued promises of reform and a brief period of eased restrictions on political activity, the report concludes that there has been no improvement in the country's human rights record. HRW cited the conviction of lawyer and human rights activist Haitham Maleh [JURIST report] for campaigning against the emergency rule as a recent example of this rights situation. HRW called for an end to the emergency rule, in place since 1963 [AI backgrounder], which it said violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [text]. The rights organization also called for an end to Internet and media censorship and warrantless detentions and torture, calling for the Syrian government to allow detainees access to counsel and to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture [text]. The report urges the government to recognize the Kurdish minority's right to its culture and to resolve the status of 300,000 Kurds and their descendants who were stripped of their Syrian citizenship in 1962 and remain stateless. The only time in which any progress was made, according to HRW, was shortly after al-Asad ascended to the presidency during the so-called "Damascus Spring." During this period, groups advocating political reform were allowed to organize, political prisoners were released and prisons were shut down. This period ended abruptly in 2001, however, as the government resumed the repression of dissidents.
Over the past several years, Syria has increased its prosecution of political dissidents, drawing strong criticism from the international community. Earlier this month, a Syrian military court sentenced Haitham Maleh [RNW profile] to three years in prison for "weakening national morale." The 78-year-old former judge was put on trial in October 2009 sparking criticism from the US government [press release] and several human rights groups. In October 2008 a Damascus criminal court sentenced 12 dissidents [JURIST report] found guilty on charges of weakening national sentiment, broadcasting false or exaggerated news that could affect the morale of the country, joining an organization formed with the purpose of changing the financial or social status of the state and inciting sectarian strife. In January 2008, the Syrian government arrested former parliamentarian [JURIST report] and dissident Riyad Sayf, a prominent member of the "Damascus Declaration" group, which, in 2005, issued a declaration urging Syria to embark on democratic transition and improve relations with Lebanon. In 2007, a Syrian court sentenced writer and activist Michel Kilo [JURIST report] to a prison term of three years for "speaking false news, weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian sentiments."