By Mahsa Maleki, Syria Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA
Over the past few weeks in the Middle East, we have seen firsthand the importance of the right to protest peacefully and freely. Since March 16, protesters in Syria have stood up for this right, taking to the streets and demanding the release of political prisoners.
The Syrian government has responded by imprisoning peaceful protesters, creating a cycle of injustice. At least 21 people went missing after Wednesday’s protest and another 33 people could face up to fifteen years in prison for taking part in the protests.
Still other protesters have been killed. On Friday, four men died after security forces opened fire on demonstrators. Another man was killed on Sunday and a sixth–reported to be only 12 or 13 years old— died on Monday after inhaling tear gas. Dozens more were injured by bullets and tear gas, and many more were detained.
This past Tuesday, at least seven people were reported dead after a night-time raid on the ‘Omari mosque in the southern town of Dera’a, where scores of protesters were staging a sit-in. If confirmed, these deaths tragically bring the loss of life during only six days of protests in the town to 13. The residents of Dera’a were put under curfew with government announcements telling them they will be shot if they leave their house.
Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said he regarded all those who were arrested as prisoners of conscience, and called for their immediate and unconditional release.
Amnesty International has condemned these deadly attacks and has called on the Syrian authorities to launch an independent investigation into the death of anti-government protesters. “The use of lethal force by the Syrian security forces against protesters who, by all accounts, were not putting others’ lives at risk is totally unacceptable. People must be allowed to assemble and protest peacefully,” Luther said.
The protests in Syria have continued since and, as with elsewhere in the region, the protesters are calling for an end to corruption and an expansion of political freedom . The residents of Dera’a are also calling for the release of more than 30 children who were detained for several weeks after writing “the people want the fall of the regime”—a famous protest slogan– on a wall.
Amnesty International has also compiled the names of 93 people who were arrested during March throughout Syria and remain detained in unknown locations. This list is likely far from complete, and the real number of those arrested is thought to be much higher. Amnesty International believes that many of those detained are prisoners of conscience, held merely for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression and association by peacefully supporting or taking part in protests.