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Laws of Associations

Article 39 of the Syrian Constitution grants citizens the right to meet and demonstrate peacefully, in accordance with the law. So also the “popular sectors” may establish “unionist, social, professional organizations, and production cooperatives,” by virtue of Article 48 of the constitution. Article 49 further rules that such organizations must work towards building a socialist Arab society and defending its system; planning and guiding a socialist economy; and popularly supervising the machinery of government.

A series of emergency laws, imposed in 1963, permit the government to act in many areas in the name of security. Abolishing martial law is a priority of reformers in Syria. For a brief period after the accession to power of Bashar al-Assad in July 2000, informal groups met in private homes to discuss the economy, human rights, politics, and other topics. The president released 600 political prisoners on 16 November 2000, and scores of exiled members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood were allowed to return home, but the Emergency Laws remained in effect. The Syrian Human Rights Committee, issuing its first Annual Report after the president’s first full year in office, notes, “Despite promises of political openness …human rights conditions did not witness any improvement…” Subsequent years have confirmed this analysis. The Syrian parliament amended article 137 of the civil service law in January 2005. The amendment restricts the power to expel public servants from office "without giving any reasons for that decision" to the President of the Republic rather than the council of ministers. Expulsion decisions cannot be contested or reviewed by any authority in Syria.

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Political Parties

All official political parties in Syria must be members of the National Progressive Front, which currently consists of nine member parties, the largest of which is the ruling Arab socialist Ba'th (Rebirth) Party. By law, the president of the republic is also the head of the National Progressive Front and Secretary General of the Ba'th Party. Political parties are required to support the principles of the revolution, which include socialism and Arab nationalism. Despite suggestions by the state apparatus in 2000 that opposition parties might be permitted, Syrian authorities continue to deny legitimacy to opposition political parties. In early August 2005 the authorities prevented the formation of a “Liberal Democratic Rally” on the grounds that it did not have a license to be a political party, and they also shut down the “Al-Atassi Forum,” the only political forum in Syria.

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Associations and Unions

Bashar al-Assad’s brief period of tolerance came to an abrupt end beginning in August 2001, when the authorities arrested ten opposition leaders, including two members of parliament, in August through November 2001. Riad Seif, a parliamentarian who had been granted some freedom to create a nascent opposition party, was indicted for holding a weekly forum in his home that gathered up to 400 people. Although the authorities overlooked a meeting convened by the Committee for Defense of Human Rights in Syria (CDF), it did not license the organization but instead cracked down on civil society advocacy groups and elite forums. In 2004, however, the Tharwa Project, based in Damasacus, began "addressing the concerns of the various ethnic and religious minorities inhabiting the Arab World," including those of Syrian Kurds. On July 14, 2005, 1100 Syrian public figures appealed to President Assad to release dissenters from prison, to close the file of political arrests and to lift the emergency situation declared in 1963. The Syrian ministry of foreign affairs sent a diplomatic circular on July 15, 2005 circumscribing foreign embassy contacts with Syrian NGOs.

Under Syria’s corporatist system the General Federation of Trade Unions is the principal umbrella organization for trade and professional syndicates.

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Media and Government Regulations

Article 38 of the constitution guarantees citizens the right to open expression and to “participate in supervision and constructive criticism in a manner that safeguards the soundness of the domestic and nationalist structure and strengthens the socialist system.” Moreover, the state law guarantees freedom of press, printing, and publication, in according with law. There are three Arabic and one English-language daily newspapers published in Syria, in addition to weekly publications. Licenses were also granted to three newspapers owned by officially recognized political parties and to the privately owned El Domari satirical magazine, but some of the latter’s criticisms of government performance were censored. The Council of Ministers has licensed Al-Kanar company to establish a private commercial radio station in early 2005. The station is called "City FM". The license was granted according to the new publications law issued by President Bashhar Al-Asad in September 2004. The law permits the establishment of privately owned radio stations, which were a state monopoly over the past 4 decades. The Syrian leadership issued directives to security agencies on May 29, 2005 preventing the detention of any person more than 5 days provided they receive the approval of the public prosecutor's office. Then the detainee should be referred to justice or released. Excluded from this directive are crimes against state security, crimes related to terrorism, arms crimes and drug smuggling. This new decision restricts the use of the emergency law that has been in effect since 1963.

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