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The situation for human rights in Syria is considered exceptionally poor among international observers. A state of emergency was in effect from 1963 until April 2011, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.
Syria is a Multi-party state without free elections. The authorities harass and imprison human rights activists and other critics of the government. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly are strictly controlled. Women and ethnic minorities face discrimination. According to Human Rights Watch, President Bashar al-Assad failed to improve Syria’s human rights record in the first 10 years of his rule, and Syria's human rights situation remained among the worst in the world. According to Amnesty International, the government may be guilty of crimes against humanity based on "witness accounts of deaths in custody, torture and arbitrary detention," during the crackdown against the 2011 uprising.
From the early 1920s until 1946, Syria and Lebanon were under the control of a French Mandate, officially ratified by the League of Nations on 29 September 1923. Human rights concerns during this period included the colonialist treatment of the Druze within their autonomous state in the southern portion of the mandate, as prisoners and peasants there were often used for forced labor.
During the Great Syrian Revolt, French military forces sieged much of Damascus and the countryside, killing at least 6,000 rebels and displacing over 100,000 civilians. Authorities would publicly display mutilated corpses in central squares within Damascus and villages throughout Syria as a means of intimidating opponents of the regime. In 1926, the Damascus military court executed 355 Syrians without any legal representation. Hundreds of Syrians were sentenced to death in absentia, prison terms of various lengths, and life imprisonment with hard labor.
In 1982 Hafez al-Assad responded to an insurrection in the city of Hama by sending a paramilitary force to indiscriminately kill between 10,000 and 55,000 civilians including children, women, and the elderly during the Hama massacre.
Amnesty International reports that women have been subject to discrimination and gender-based violence.
According to the 2008 report on human rights by the United States State Department, the Syrian government's "respect for human rights worsened". Members of the security forces arrested and detained individuals without providing just cause, often held prisoners in "lengthy pretrial and incommunicado detention", and "tortured and physically abused prisoners and detainees". The regime imposed significant restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, amid an atmosphere of government corruption. According to Arab Press Network, "despite a generally repressive political climate", there were "signs of positive change," during the 2007 elections. According to a 2008 report by Reporters without Borders, "Journalists have to tightly censor themselves for fear of being thrown into Adra Prison."
In 2009 Syria was included in Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" section and given a rating of 7 for Political Rights: and 6 for Civil Liberties. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2009 Syria’s poor human rights situation had "deteriorated further". Authorities arrested political and human rights activists, censored websites, detained bloggers, and imposed travel bans. Syria’s multiple security agencies continue to detain people without arrest warrants. No political parties were licensed and emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remained in effect.
Syria has a long history of arbitrary arrest, unfair trials and prolonged detention of suspects. Thousands of political prisoners remain in detention, with many belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party. Since June 2000, more than 700 long-term political prisoners have been freed by President al-Asad, though an estimated 4,000 are reportedly still imprisoned. Information regarding those detained in relation to political or security-related charges is not divulged by the authorities. The government has not acknowledged responsibility for around 17,000 Lebanese citizens and Palestinians who "disappeared" in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 1990s and are thought to be imprisoned in Syria. In 2009, hundreds of people were arrested and imprisoned for political reasons. Military Police were reported to have killed at least 17 detainees. Human rights activists are continually targeted and imprisoned by the government.
Among the scores of prisoners of conscience arrested in 2009, and hundreds political prisoners already in prison, some of the more prominent prisoners were:
Sednaya prison alone houses more than 600 political prisoners. The authorities have kept many for years behind bars, often well past their legal sentence. The estimated 17,000 prisoners who have disappeared over the years suggests that Syria may have hidden mass graves.
In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch reported on the continued detention of "thousands" of political prisoners in Syria, "many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party." According to the Syrian Human Rights Committee that there were 4,000 political prisoners held in Syrian jails in 2006.
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion. However, the Government restricts this right. While there is no official state religion, the Constitution requires that the president be Muslim and stipulates that Islamic jurisprudence, an expansion of Sharia Islamic law, is a principal source of legislation. According to the U.S. Department of State's "International Religious Freedom Report 2007", the Constitution provides for freedom of faith and religious practice, provided that the religious rites do not disturb the public order. According to the report, the Syrian Government monitored the activities of all groups, including religious groups, discouraged proselytism, which it deemed a threat to relations among religious groups. The report said that the Government discriminated against the Jehovah's Witnesses and that there were occasional reports of minor tensions between religious groups, some attributable to economic rivalries rather than religious affiliation. There is some concern among religious minorities that democratic reforms will result in oppression of religious minorities by Islamist movements that are now repressed.
Article 520 of the penal code of 1949, prohibits having homosexual relations, i.e. "carnal relations against the order of nature", and provides for up to three-years imprisonment.
In 2010 the Syrian police began a crackdown that led to the arrest of over 25 men. The men were charged with various crimes ranging from homosexual acts and illegal drug use, to encouraging homosexual behavior and organizing obscene parties.
The secret police prevents people from even approaching embassies of foreign countries, making it difficult to get a visa to travel abroad. Furthermore, Syrians can not leave the country without an "exit visa" granted by the authorities.
The number of news media has increased in the past decade, but the Ba'ath Party continues to maintain control of the press. Journalists and bloggers have been arrested and tried. In 2009, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Syria number three in a list of the ten worst countries in which to be a blogger, given the arrests, harassment, and restrictions which online writers in Syria faced.
Internet censorship in Syria is extensive. Syria bans websites for political reasons and arrests people accessing them. Internet cafes are required to record all the comments users post on chat forums. Websites such as Wikipedia Arabic, YouTube and Facebook were blocked from 2008 to 2011. Filtering and blocking was found to be pervasive in the political and Internet tools areas, and selective in the social and conflict/security areas by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2009. Syria has been on Reporters Without Borders' Enemy of the Internet list since 2006 when the list was established.
In addition to filtering a wide range of Web content, the Syrian government monitors Internet use very closely and has detained citizens "for expressing their opinions or reporting information online." Vague and broadly worded laws invite government abuse and have prompted Internet users to engage in self-censorship to avoid the state's ambiguous grounds for arrest.
The Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression was closed by the government in September 2009. It was the country’s only NGO specializing in media issues, Internet access and media monitoring during election campaigns. It had operated without government approval, and had monitored violations of journalists’ rights and had taken up the cause of the ban on the dissemination of many newspapers and magazines.
Syria is home to 1.7 million Kurds who constitute 10% of the population, forming the largest non-Arab ethnic minority in the country. They were denied citizenship until April 2011 (Decree 49).
During the Syrian civil war, a UN report described actions by the security forces as being "gross violations of human rights". The UN report documented shooting recruits that refused to fire into peaceful crowds without warning, brutal interrogations including elements of sexual abuse of men and gang rape of young boys, staking out hospitals when wounded sought assistance, and shooting of children as young as two. In 2011 Human Rights Watch stated that Syria's bleak human rights record stood out in the region. While Human Rights Watch doesn't rank offenders, many have characterized Syria's human rights report as among the worst in the world in 2010.
While it is claimed that 'the majority of these violations have been committed by the Syrian government's forces', Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said that both sides appear to have committed war crimes.