Syrian opposition skeptical of Assad’s amnesty decision

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he will pardon army deserters and release political detainees from prison, but his credibility is lacking because of his past reversals.

al-monitor A woman reacts as she looks at a gruesome collection of images of dead bodies taken by a photographer, who has been identified by the code name "Caesar," at the United Nations Headquarters, New York, US, March 10, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Oct 4, 2019

ALEPPO, Syria — The Syrian opposition is doubting the veracity of President Bashar al-Assad's recent decree promising amnesty or reduced sentences for certain crimes. The pertinent question is: Will this decree be any different from his other "pardons" issued throughout the Syrian revolution?

Syrian state news agency SANA reported that Assad agreed Sept. 15 to grant general amnesty for many crimes committed before Sept. 14. Under the decree, many criminal offenses are mostly pardoned, and partial pardons are to be granted for some but not all terrorism-related crimes. Death sentences supposedly will be reduced to life sentences with hard labor, and life sentences are to be cut to 20 years.

Abductors who kidnapped people for a ransom are to be granted full amnesty, provided that they release the kidnapped and hand them over to a competent security authority. All army deserters, at home or abroad, will receive pardons if they turn themselves in and begin military service, according to the decree.

Asmaa Mohammad al-Mahmoud, a civilian activist who lives in the opposition-controlled western Aleppo province, told Al-Monitor, “The opposition in Idlib province and the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas of Aleppo province is still in general skeptical and cynical of the amnesty decision. Every opposition civil activist I know believes that this would not guarantee the release of detainees from the regime’s prisons, especially those who joined the ranks of the armed Syrian opposition, as well as the thousands of political detainees.”

Ahmed al-Hariri, an opposition activist based in Azaz, told Al-Monitor, “The general amnesty is a propaganda routine that is repeatedly used by the regime during the revolution but will remain just for show for many Syrians. Those who were previously pardoned returned to Syria only to be killed or arrested by the Syrian regime.” 

Al-Monitor could not independently verify that statement, though there have been many such allegations.

“The regime wants to present itself as tolerant before the international community. But on the ground and in dealing with those who oppose it, the regime is exactly the opposite of that. The main purpose of this decision is to deceive the international community and Syrians themselves,” Hariri added.

With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the first general amnesty decree granted pardons for some crimes committed before May 31, 2011. The decree covered various political crimes, including being affiliated with jihadist groups. This worked to the great advantage of the regime, which released prisoners that flooded the opposition-held areas with extremists who espoused the ideology of jihadist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS).

The regime, however, kept political prisoners behind bars.

Several amnesty decrees were subsequently issued: in June 2011, January and October 2012, April and October 2013, and June 2014. Three amnesty decrees were issued in 2016 to pardon army deserters, and another one came in 2018.

But after each of these decisions, the regime continued to arrest and imprison thousands of people, most of whom were apprehended in the "reconciliation" areas under its control. 

Judge and human rights activist Marwan Kaid, who is based in Aleppo province, told Al-Monitor, “All detainees from 2011 are being tried before the Counterterrorism Court and the regime does not bring political detainees, according to the provisions of the penal code, to appear before ordinary courts, but before the Military Field Court."

Hussein Hamada, a dissident and former judge in the Syrian Court of Cassation, told Al-Monitor the regime’s prisons are filled with thousands of political detainees who will not benefit from the amnesty, which is worthless in the eyes of the opposition. Hamada believes this is a desperate attempt by the regime to present itself as victorious.

“Political detainees appear before military courts whose sentences are implemented in secret,” he said.

Mohammed Shakib al-Khaled, a district official in Idlib province who is based in Idlib city, told Al-Monitor, “We witnessed firsthand the lies of the regime when it comes to the amnesty decision over the past years of the revolution. In all the pardon decisions, the regime makes sure to set free all criminals and to keep all prisoners of conscience and human right activists. It is very important to call the regime on its attempts to defraud Syrians and the international community."

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