Syria Should Release All Detained Protesters, Human Rights Says

Syria should immediately release all those arrested yesterday by security officers who “violently dispersed a peaceful protest calling for the release of political activists,” Human Rights Watch said.

Syrian authorities detained at least 34 people as 150 protesters demonstrated outside the Interior Ministry and urged the government in Damascus to release their imprisoned or detained relatives, the New York-based organization said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday. Human Rights Watch said it was able to verify independently the detention of 18 people.

“President Bashar al-Assad’s recent calls for reform ring hollow when his security services still beat and detain anyone who actually dares to call for reform,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement. “Instead of beating families of Syria’s political prisoners, President al-Assad should be reuniting them with their loved ones.”

Yesterday’s rally came after as many 200 people protested in Damascus on March 15 against Assad’s government, according to members of the opposition. An estimated 1,000 security officers arrested four people in the Hariqa neighborhood of the capital and confiscated mobile phones, said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident who lives in Maryland and is in touch with people who took part, and Suhair Atassi, who participated.

Amnesty International also condemned the arrests. “Like many of the political prisoners whose release they were calling for, protesters appear to have been arrested simply for the peaceful expression of their views,” Philip Luther, the organization’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement yesterday.

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Those detained include human-rights and political activists Suhair Atassi, Omar Labwani and Kamal Sheikho, Human Rights Watch said. Protesters held at the Mantaqa branch of military security were interrogated separately, the organization said, citing a detainee who was released and said he was asked for the password to his Facebook Inc. account.

Atassi said in a March 15 phone interview that it’s unclear who is organizing the protests, though dissidents have been using Facebook’s social-networking website to draw support.

“A number of instigators tried to exploit” the situation and “to call for demonstrations through uttering some provocative slogans,” Interior Ministry Brigadier General Mohammad Hassan Ali said in a statement carried by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.

Information Minister Mohsen Bilal wasn’t available for comment when contacted at his office yesterday and Tuesday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut at mderhally@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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