The dangers of speaking out in Syria

Being a Syrian political or human rights activist requires courage — the government is intolerant of dissent. The 45-year-old state of emergency gives the security police wide powers of arrest and detention, which they use against those who dare to speak out for human rights or in opposition to the authorities.  

Under the long-running state of emergency, a special court – the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) – was established to try those who dissent or are accused of offences against state security. Created in 1968, the SSSC’s proceedings are grossly unfair and it has sentenced hundreds of people to prison terms.

Defendants before the SSSC tend to be members of unauthorized political parties, human rights organisations, civil society groups and others who may have peacefully expressed opinions that differ from those of the authorities. Yet they are often accused and convicted of vague, widely interpreted and unsubstantiated security offences, such as membership of a terrorist organisation, “exposing Syria to the threat of hostile acts”, “weakening nationalist sentiments”, “opposing the objectives of the revolution” and “inciting sectarian strife.”

Fateh Jamus, for example, was convicted of terrorism, although no evidence was produced in court to indicate that he had ever used or advocated violence. Of up to 1,000 individuals arrested for their suspected involvement in the banned Communist Labour Party, he and more than 20 others were detained for over a decade before they were eventually brought to trial at various times in the 1990s. He was eventually freed in 2000, three years beyond the expiry of his 15-year sentence.

Likewise, Muhammad Zammar was detained for nearly five years without charge before he was convicted in 2007, without any substantiating evidence, of membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The SSSC is not independent. It is effectively under the control of the executive branch of government and operates outside the ordinary criminal justice system. Its judges are invariably members of the ruling Ba’ath Party and are appointed on the recommendation of the Minister of the Interior.

For detainees and defendants, communication with a lawyer is restricted and rarely confidential. Defendants are unable to meet with a lawyer during pre-trial detention and usually first meet their lawyer at the first trial session, often for just a few minutes. Trials are usually closed to the public. Defendants tried before the SSSC are not allowed to appeal their conviction and sentence to a higher tribunal, in breach of international standards of fair trial.

“The violations do not affect only the detainees [but also] their families and lawyers,” said Razan Zaytounah, a Syrian human rights lawyer banned since November 2005 from working in the court by the SSSC’s president, following an argument during which he is also reported to have insulted her.

The SSSC, she explains, “violates the right of defence and the right of a convicted person to appeal against or challenge their sentence, because its verdicts are final… It does not abide by the criminal procedures applicable to the ordinary legal system [and] this court violates the principle of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.”

Even after release, “some effects will in fact haunt you to the grave,” adds Fateh Jamus. “You are forbidden from going back to work, from receiving any compensation and you are subject to a travel ban.”

The SSSC contributes to impunity in Syria – the court has systematically failed to investigate numerous allegations made by defendants that they were tortured during pre-trial detention and interrogation, and that “confessions” were extracted from them under duress.

As Fateh Jamus says, “The fact that an individual may have been tortured at interrogation centres for instance is totally ignored. [The court] does not pay attention to this matter at all. Statements taken or investigations carried out by the security agencies are paramount in handing down judgments on prisoners.”

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Syrian authorities to end unfair trials before the SSSC. In the run up to the 45th anniversary of the declaration of Syria’s state of emergency on 8 March, Amnesty International is again calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to fundamentally reform or abolish the SSSC and to ensure that Syria’s courts comply with the country’s obligations under international law.