Syria’s President Bashar Assad announced an unprecedented prisoner amnesty Monday, less than a week after his re-election, the most wide-ranging since the beginning of the revolt against him.
The amnesty was announced on state television five days after Assad was announced re-elected with nearly 90 percent in a ballot decried as a “farce” by much of the international community.
Syrian state television said Monday’s amnesty would cover all crimes committed before June 9, and would for the first time extend to those accused under the country’s controversial terrorism law. The government has dubbed all those opposed to Assad’s rule – armed opposition fighters and peaceful activists alike – of “terrorism,” and used the law to imprison high-profile dissidents.
State media cited Justice Minister Najm al-Ahmad as saying the decree was issued in the context of “social forgiveness and national cohesion, calls for coexistence as the army secures several military victories.”
Several pro-regime media outlets had, in the days before Monday’s announcement, predicted that the authorities were on the verge of taking a number of steps they said would bolster the process of “national reconciliation” – a term the regime uses for its negotiated cease-fires with rebel groups.
The amnesty is not the first time the regime has offered clemency. In April 2013 it announced an amnesty pardoning soldiers who had deserted but not taken up arms against the government. That amnesty also offered forgiveness to those guilty of failing to inform authorities about rebel activity – a crime under the terrorism law.
The provisions state that “fugitives from justice” are exempted from the amnesty unless they turn themselves in to the authorities within three months.
There are an estimated 100,000 people in custody for activities related to the uprising which began in March 2011.
The conflict began with peaceful anti-government demonstrations that were met with live fire by government forces, prompting some in the opposition to take up arms. In the more than three years since, upwards of 162,000 people have been killed and around 18,000 are missing, many believed to be in detention, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group based in the United Kingdom. Rights groups, including the Observatory, have described dire conditions, including torture and malnutrition in both prisons and detention facilities.
The Observatory said the amnesty announcement came less than 24 hours after the families of 25 people being held in regime facilities had been informed their relatives had died under torture. Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said the relatives were told Sunday to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones. He said the amnesty should in theory cover many opposition activists.
“The amnesty should cover many opponents – regardless of whether they bore weapons or not. Opponents of the regime are all considered terrorists,” he said. “Well-known peaceful activists should be freed under the new decree.”
The amnesty announcement comes three days after several hundred detainees were released by the authorities.
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