Monday, September 5, 2011

Syria Detains Activists, Professionals

Monday, September 5, 2011

Syrian security forces conducted detentions across at least six cities Thursday that activists said appeared to focus on not only opposition activists but lawyers, doctors, intellectuals and educated professionals.

The stepped-up detentions came as residents reported continued gunfire in restive southern areas, in what activists said appeared to show resolve by President Bashar al-Assad's government to eliminate and silence dissent ahead of planned demonstrations for Friday.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sharply criticized Mr. Assad on Thursday for "brutal" reprisals against protesters in the face of widespread international condemnation of his government's crackdown.

Speaking during a visit to Greenland, Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Assad's government was responsible for hundreds of deaths and has unlawfully detained, tortured and denied medical care to wounded people, the Associated Press reported. She stopped short of saying Mr. Assad has lost his legitimacy as a leader or calling for him to step down.

[SYRIA]AFP/Getty Images

Syrian army vehicles seen driving through Homs, in an image taken from footage provided Wednesday by an opposition website.

Activist groups placed the death toll of the regime's attacks on two protest centers on Wednesday at 30 or more people. The International Commission of Jurists said in a statement on Thursday more than 700 people have been killed since Syrian authorities began cracking down on protests on March 15. The ICJ said its information was provided by a network of lawyers, human rights activists, and nongovernmental organizations inside Syria.

Military tanks on Thursday moved out of Homs, where intense shelling the day before killed at least 19 people. More military forces were deployed around the nearby city of Hama, according to residents and activists. In the towns of Jassim, Inkhil and Al Hara—all surrounding Deraa, the southern Syrian city where protests began nearly eight weeks ago—activists reported a near-total military siege with electricity and communications cut off.

"Tens of tanks" remained deployed in those cities, with residents reporting they were unable to leave their homes amid constant gunfire and snipers on rooftops shooting down at people, according to the activists, who said they were relaying witness accounts.

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Late Thursday in Deraa, activists said gunfire rounds drowned out chants of "God is great" across city neighborhoods.

Activists in several cities said they planned to protest Friday despite the government's escalated military response. Activists in Deraa said residents had decided to pray at the Al Omari mosque on Friday, despite bloody clashes between security forces and protesters after previous Friday prayers and a military raid of the mosque before.

"Today, Homs is calm," a resident of that city said in an email. "But tomorrow, there will be protests in all Syrian cities, and in Homs in particular, after the gore and injustice we witnessed." The resident, who had been unreachable for days by telephone, said he would no longer communicate by phone for security reasons."People here have become more determined," he said. "They've reached a decision that there is no going back."

But ramped-up security measures could physically restrict the movement of protesters on Friday, said Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a Syria-focused rights group based in Spain. "People will not be able to leave their neighborhoods, and in many cases, their houses," Mr. Tarif said.

At least 3,000 people have gone missing or have been detained across Syria over the last 10 days, according to Insan. The group estimates more than 11,000 people are missing or detained since Syria's uprising began in mid-March. Insan says eight rights groups are working together to keep track of the missing or detained, but the breadth of arrests, and communications blackouts, is making it difficult to collect and verify information.

On Thursday, security forces arrested dozens of engineers, lawyers, writers and others in an apparent attempt to intimidate the professional class from joining or rallying protests, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the leader of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "They are afraid of them because they're able to mobilize the street," he said.

Widespread protests as government tanks shell two Syrian towns leaving 19 people dead across the country. Video courtesy of Reuters. Image courtesy of AP.

Mr. Abdel Rahman said dozens of protesters have been released in recent days after being made to sign papers saying they weren't tortured and wouldn't engage in "acts of rioting." In Latakia, some of the same people who signed those papers and were released were then detained again a few days later, he said.

Activists reported arrests in Banias on the Mediterranean coast, Aleppo in the north, Homs and Hama, as well as in Damascus and several of its suburbs. Mr. Tarif said Thursday's arrests appeared to be a "second wave" that had specific targets.

"The first wave of detentions is random. [In] the second wave, which happens the second or third day after the siege of a city, they target specific people," he said.

Some bakeries in the Damascus suburb of Maadamiyeh were selling bread Wednesday only to those who presented ID cards, to check for names of people on a list provided by the intelligence services, rights activists inside Syria said. It isn't clear how any customers appearing on the list were dealt with.

People demonstrated across the country on Wednesday, even in Syria's two largest cities, with most demonstrators coming out in small groups at night to denounce the day's violence.

In Aleppo, about 1,500 students marched in a demonstration around Aleppo University's campus Wednesday evening before being dispersed by security, an activist reached by telephone said. The students had tried to protest the two previous nights, but security forces averted their plan both times. Scores were rounded up on Thursday, activists said.

More than 137 students at Damascus University, where students staged a small protest last week, have been referred to the university's disciplinary committee, Insan's Mr. Tarif said.

"The thing is, these people can't get within 100 feet of campus because security will detain them, so they can't show up to the disciplinary committee and are basically expelled," he said.

A video posted on YouTube shows a crowd of men gathered in a dark alleyway in the Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh on Wednesday night, clapping and chanting as someone led a long rhyme of chants including, "Bashar is a liar" and "The Syrian media are lying, lying, lying."

The spread of protests into Damascus and Aleppo, both business and merchant strongholds seen as largely loyal to Mr. Assad's regime, would be indicative of antiregime opposition gaining momentum. In Aleppo, where large Christian and Kurdish minorities mix with the Sunni majority, widespread protests would test Syria's sectarian fault lines, which the regime appears to hold together.

Protests in those cities so far appear to be organized mostly by university students and as relatively small gatherings in overcrowded middle-class neighborhoods.

Syria's government has characterized the uprising as a foreign-backed terrorist initiative and says military operations across the country are pursuing armed, criminal groups.

"The regime is killing innocent people and putting weapons next to them to say they are armed gangs," the resident of Homs said, disputing that the government was chasing Muslim extremist groups.

"Last night, a man was shot in front of his son as he walked him to the school bus—he was Christian," the resident said. "There is a funeral procession going on for him right now."

Tanks withdrew from Bab Amro, a residential district of Homs that was hard hit by shelling on Wednesday, and onto the city's peripheries, the resident said, describing homes in the district as wrecked by shelling and looted by security forces.

"They destroyed everything from TV's to tea cups," he wrote in the e-mail. "The psychological state of the citizen is constant fear—even if there is actual security, the security [forces] and state are now a source of hostility," he said.

Write to Nour Malas at

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