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Syria may ease limits on political freedoms

Emergency law in place since 1963

By Hussein Malla
Associated Press / March 28, 2011

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LATAKIA, Syria — The Syrian government is considering lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms in the country, a lawmaker said yesterday.

Mohammed Habash, a member of Parliament, said lawmakers discussed the state of emergency during a session last night, and President Bashar Assad will make an announcement about the issue tomorrow.

Syria’s state of emergency has been in force since Assad’s Ba’ath party took power on March 8, 1963. It lets the government detain suspects without trial and exercise strict control over the media. It also allows civilians to be tried in military courts.

Assad’s decisions are effectively law, but the state of emergency would have to be formally canceled by a presidential decree, which requires approval of the Cabinet.

The decree would then be referred to a parliamentary committee for approval before actually going into effect.

The next scheduled Cabinet meeting is tomorrow.

Habash said Parliament also would consider changing a section of the constitution that mandates Ba’ath party leadership of the nation. The amendment would open the way for the formation of parties besides the Ba’ath and 11 other closely associated parties known as the National Progressive Front.

In the seaside city of Latakia, gangs of young men, some armed with swords and hunting rifles, roamed through the streets yesterday, closing alleys with barricades and roughly questioning passersby in streets scarred by days of antigovernment unrest.

The scenes were a remarkable display of anarchy in what had been one of the Mideast’s most tightly controlled countries.

The government said 12 people had been shot to death during unrest in Latakia in recent days and blamed the deaths on unidentified gunmen firing from rooftops.

Syria has been rocked by more than a week of demonstrations that began in the drought-parched southern agricultural city of Daraa and exploded nationwide on Friday, with security forces opening fire on demonstrators in at least six places, killing dozens.

A Damascus-based activist said residents of an impoverished hillside neighborhood of the capital known as Mezah-86 reported that government forces were attacking demonstrators there last night.

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