Syria may lift some laws seen as repressive
Following protest deaths, activists vow to press on
DARAA, Syria — The Syrian government pledged yesterday to consider lifting some of the Mideast’s most repressive laws in an attempt to stop a weeklong uprising in a southern city from spreading and threatening its nearly 50-year rule.
The promises were immediately rejected by many activists who called for demonstrations around the country today in response to a crackdown that protesters say killed dozens of antigovernment marchers in Daraa.
“We will not forget the martyrs of Daraa,’’ a resident said by telephone. “If they think this will silence us they are wrong.’’
The coming days will be a crucial test of the surge of popular discontent that has unseated autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens to push several others from power.
On one side in Syria stands a regime unafraid of using extreme violence to quash unrest. In one infamous example, it leveled entire sections of Hama with artillery and bulldozers to put down an uprising by the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
Facing the regime is a loosely organized protest movement in the main city of southern Syria’s drought-parched agricultural heartland.
Sheltering in Daraa’s Roman-era old city, the protesters have persisted through seven days of increasing violence by security forces, but have not inspired significant unrest in other parts of the country.
“Even if the government can contain violence to Daraa for the time being, protests will spread,’’ Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in a recent blog posting. “The wall of fear has broken.’’
President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran and its regional proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, appears worried enough to promise increased freedoms for discontented citizens and increased pay and benefits for state workers — a familiar package of incentives offered by other nervous Arab regimes in recent weeks.
“To those who claim they want freedom and dignity for the [Syrian] people, I say to them we have seen the example of Iraq, the million martyrs there and the loss of security there,’’ presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban told reporters in the capital, Damascus, as she announced the promises of reform.
Shaaban said the powerful Ba’ath party would study ending a state of emergency that it put in place after taking power in 1963.
The emergency laws, which have been a feature of many Arab countries, allow people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trials. Human rights groups say violations of other basic liberties are rife in Syria, with torture and abuse common in police stations, detention centers, and prisons, and dissenters regularly imprisoned for years without due process.
Syria’s state TV said later yesterday that Assad had ordered the release of all detainees in connection with the unrest of the past few days.
Shortly afterward, Abdul-Karim Rihawi, who heads the Syrian Human Rights League, said authorities released several activists, writers, and bloggers who were detained in different parts of Syria in an apparent response to events in Daraa.
Jordan Protesters and supporters of Jordan’s king clashed in the capital of Amman late yesterday, and about 35 people were hurt in one of the most violent episodes in three months of demonstrations.
About 2,000 Jordanians demanding government reforms joined an encampment at a central square. They were attacked by about 300 supporters of King Abdullah II, who threw rocks at the demonstrators, injuring some of them.
Leftist groups joined youth who demonstrated through the day to press demands for the ouster of the prime minister and wider freedoms.
Many said they met through Facebook last month to launch a group called the Jordanian Youth Movement.
Before the violence, spokesman Ziad al-Khawaldeh said protesters would remain outdoors until Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit departs.
Other demands include dissolving what is widely seen as a docile Parliament, dismantling the largely feared intelligence department, and giving greater powers to the people.
The group changed its name yesterday to Youth of March 24, marking what members said was the start of an open-ended demonstration.
“Today is the dawning of the Jordanian revolution,’ said the group’s spokesman.
Yemen The youth groups that began a monthlong uprising want a new constitution and the dissolution of parliament, local councils, and Yemen’s notorious security agencies — in addition to the immediate ouster of the president — they said yesterday.
A top military official who defected to the opposition this week met privately with President Ali Abdullah Saleh yesterday to suggest ways he could leave, an aide who attended the meeting said.
Saleh rejected the offer, lashing out instead out at the protesters, who are threatening his 32-year rule.
“Even if we entered with them now into an understanding, the situation will be worse than it is now,’’ Saleh said of the opposition.
“We will cling to constitutional legitimacy and we will preserve the security, independence, and safety of the Yemeni republic with all means possible.’’