Friday, June 11, 2010

Freedom House: ‘The World’s Most Repressive Societies – Syria’

Freedom House has prepared this report as a companion to our annual survey on the state of global political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World. We are publishing this report to assist policymakers, human rights organizations, democracy advocates, and others who are working to advance freedom around the world. We also hope that the report will be useful to the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The reports are excerpted from Freedom in the World 2010, which surveys the state of freedom in 194 countries and 14 select territories. The ratings and accompanying essays are based on events from January 1, 2009, through December 31, 2009. The 17 countries and 3 territories profiled in this report are drawn from the total of 47 countries and 7 territories that are considered to be Not Free, and whose citizens endure systematic and pervasive human rights violations.

Included in this report are nine countries judged to have the worst human rights conditions: Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Also included is one territory, Tibet, whose inhabitants suffer similarly intense repression. These states and territories received the Freedom House survey’s lowest ratings: 7 for political rights and 7 for civil liberties (based on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free). Within these entities, state control over daily life is pervasive, independent organizations and political opposition are banned or suppressed, and fear of retribution for independent thought and action is ubiquitous.

The report also includes eight additional countries near the bottom of Freedom House’s ratings scale: Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, Guinea, Laos, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. The two territories of South Ossetia and Western Sahara are also included in this group. These countries and territories—all of which received ratings of 7 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties—offer very limited scope for private discussion while severely suppressing opposition political activity, impeding independent organizing, and censoring or punishing criticism of the state.

Syria (Syrian Arab Republic)

Political Rights: 7

Civil Liberties: 6

Status: Not Free

Population: 21,906,000

Capital: Damascus

Ten-Year Ratings Timeline for Year under Review

(Political Rights, Civil Liberties, Status)

Year Under Review 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009

Rating 7,7,NF 7,7,NF 7,7,NF 7,7,NF 7,7,NF 7,7,NF 7,6,NF 7,6,NF 7,6,NF 7,6,NF

2009 Key Developments: Freedoms of expression, association, and assembly remained tightly restricted throughout 2009, especially with regard to certain groups, such as the Kurdish minority. Syria’s opposition in exile split during the year, ending an uneasy alliance between Islamists and secularists. On the international front, Syria and Lebanon exchanged ambassadors, and although the United States announced that it would send an ambassador to Damascus, none had been named by year’s end.

Political Rights: Syria is not an electoral democracy. The president is nominated by the ruling Baath Party and approved by popular referendum. In practice, these referendums are orchestrated by the regime, as are elections for the 250-seat, unicameral People’s Council, whose members serve four-year terms and hold little independent legislative power. Almost all power rests in the executive branch. The only legal political parties are the Baath Party and its several small coalition partners in the ruling National Progressive Front. Corruption is widespread, and bribery is often necessary to navigate the bureaucracy.

Civil Liberties: Freedom of expression is heavily restricted. It is illegal to publish material that harms national unity, tarnishes the image of the state, or threatens the “goals of the revolution.” Most broadcast media are state owned, and private print outlets are required to submit all material to government censors. Journalists in Syria are subject to harassment and intimidation in the form of short jail terms, travel bans, and confiscations of their notes. Syrians access the internet only through state-run servers, which block more than 160 sites. However, satellite dishes are common, giving most Syrians access to foreign broadcasts. More than a dozen privately owned newspapers and magazines have sprouted up in recent years, and criticism of government policy is tolerated, provided it is nuanced and does not criticize the president. A dozen cyberdissidents are currently imprisoned. In September 2009, blogger Karim Antoine Arabji, who had written about corruption, was sentenced to three years in prison after already serving nearly two years in pretrial detention.

Although the constitution requires that the president be a Muslim, there is no state religion in Syria, and freedom of worship is generally respected. Academic freedom is heavily restricted. Public demonstrations are illegal without official permission, which is typically granted only to progovernment groups. All nongovernmental organizations must register with the government, which generally denies registration to reformist or human rights groups. Leaders of unlicensed human rights groups have frequently been jailed for publicizing state abuses.

The state of emergency in force since 1963 gives the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge. Many of the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners in Syria have never been tried. The security agencies, which operate independently of the judiciary, routinely extract confessions by torturing suspects and detaining their family members.

The Kurdish minority faces severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression. Opposition figures, human rights activists, and relatives of exiled dissidents are prevented from traveling abroad, and many ordinary Kurds lack the requisite documents to leave the country.

The government provides women with equal access to education and appoints women to senior positions, but many discriminatory laws remain in force.

[Note: The following document is an excerpt from the Freedom House report 'Worst of the Worst 2010: The World's Most Repressive Societies'. The full report is available at…WorstOfTheWorst2010.pdf]