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Syria protest intensifies; Internet access is cut off

Rage continues over torture, death of teen

By Liam Stack and Katherine Zoepf
New York Times / June 4, 2011

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CAIRO — Syrians poured into the streets yesterday in some of the largest antigovernment protests yet despite the shutdown of much of Syria’s Internet network, which has been crucial to the protesters’ ability to mobilize and a major source of information for those outside the country.

The crowds protesting the authoritarian rule of President Bashar Assad appeared fueled in part by escalating anger about the torture and killing of a 13-year-old boy. Witnesses said protesters in dozens of communities yesterday dedicated their marches to him and other children killed during the uprising.

They defied the continuing crackdown that has killed more than 1,000 people, with hundreds more rounded up in mass arrests. Yesterday, more than 30 protesters were killed in the city of Hamah, according to Rami Abdelrahman, a human rights monitor. That report could not be immediately confirmed.

The boy who was killed, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, has become a symbol of government oppression after a video of his mutilated body was circulated on YouTube.

“We won’t forgive, we will kill the child killer,’’ chanted protesters in Homs, a center of dissent, according to a witness who gave his name as Mohamed.

Earlier this week, UNICEF issued an unusual statement describing “extreme violence against children in Syria.

“We are particularly disturbed by the recent video images of children who were arbitrarily detained and suffered torture or ill-treatment during their detention, leading in some cases to their death,’’ the statement said.

Although UNICEF has issued more general warnings about the effects of recent unrest in the Middle East on the lives of children there, the statement is the first time since the Arab Spring began that the organization has called on a specific government to investigate what it called “horrific acts’’ against children.

The Internet shutdown severely disrupted the flow of the YouTube videos and Facebook and Twitter posts that have allowed protesters and others to keep track of demonstrations, since foreign media are banned and state media are heavily controlled.

Both land lines and cellphones are so frequently monitored by Syria’s feared secret police that Skype had become a major means of communication among activists, and its loss as a tool may be a blow to the protest movement. Government websites, including those for the Ministry of Oil and the state news agency, SANA, remained online.

Two-thirds of Syria’s Internet network went offline at 6:35 a.m. yesterday, said James Cowie, an analyst at Renesys, an Internet analytic firm, in a cascading blackout that took 30 minutes.

Forty of the country’s 59 Internet pathways were disabled, including Syria’s entire 3G mobile network, run by the country’s only telecom provider, Syriatel, which is owned by Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin.

“People that want to use their smart phones to tweet or read Web pages cannot,’’ Cowie said. “All of the IPs on those phones appear to be down.’’

Phone service was also heavily disrupted, and rights activists have reported that water and electricity had been shut off in central and southern Syria.

Egypt and Libya had earlier shut off access to the Internet in an attempt to crush popular uprisings led by young people and aided by social media networks.

“When a government shuts down the Internet, it shows the disconnection between the governing and the governed,’’ Alec Ross, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s senior adviser for innovation, wrote on Twitter yesterday.

Oula Abdulhamid, a Syrian activist who helped organize a conference for members of the Syrian opposition in Turkey this week, said the protest videos posted yesterday were mainly the work of activists who had crossed Syria’s borders.

“In some of the areas on the borders, they’re using Jordanian lines and Lebanese lines,’’ Abdulhamid said. “They’re crossing the borders and going to Internet cafes. They’re doing such hard work just to get a few videos out. They’re risking their lives.’’

In recent weeks, SANA, the state news agency, has described the protest movement as an insurgency. Syrian television has offered limited coverage of the demonstrations, describing them as peaceful protests calling for the government to speed the reform process.

But Abdelrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, described concerns that worsening attacks on the protesters by the security forces might cause the protesters to respond with violence of their own.

“I have fears that things will go out of control in the street,’’ he said. “Not all the people participating in the rallies are intellectuals, so it’s hard to control things, especially families who lost their sons.’’

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