Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Syria repeals state of emergency

Syria has done away with 50 years of emergency rule, but crowds of protesters have accused President Bashar Assad of simply trying to buy time while he clings to power.

Repealing the state of emergency, which gives authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest, was once the key demand of the month-long uprising. But the protest movement has crossed a significant threshold, with increasing numbers now seeking nothing less than the downfall of the regime.

"They don't want to admit there's a Syrian revolution," said one protester in the city of Banias. "The people are not interested in small changes here and there any more."

The rejection by protesters of the lifting of emergency rule could pose a make-or-break moment for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who took power 11 years ago but has failed to fulfil early promises of reform.

He has said that after this concession, there would be no further "excuse" for demonstrations. That could mean that the uprising - in which more than 200 have already been killed - could take an even bloodier turn.

It came just hours after a violent show of strength by authorities when security forces raided a sit-in in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, with witnesses saying at least one person was killed. Authorities then issued a stern warning on national TV for the protesters to back down.

Most of Syria's 23 million people were born or grew up under the strict control of the state of emergency, which gives the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge, control on the media and eavesdrop on telecommunications.

But repealing the law will not change much because Syria is not governed by the rule of law. Power begins and ends with Assad and a small coterie of his family and advisers. Other laws maintain Assad's dominance as well, including measures that guarantee immunity for the secret police for crimes committed in the line of duty.

So far, Assad's strategy has been to couple dry promises of reform with a relentless crackdown. He has also fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria's Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.

Protesters say Assad has unleashed his security forces along with pro-government thugs known as "shabiha" to brutalise and intimidate them. Authorities have also played on fears of sectarian strife, trying to persuade the broader public that the protest will bring nothing but chaos.

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