22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Amnesty for businessBy Atef Saqr
The big question in Damascus, following the general amnesty decree issued by Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad last week, is whether political detainees will be included among the tens of thousands of prisoners who, according to Syrian officials, will benefit from the amnesty. Although the Syrian authorities announced that the pardon would include only those prisoners convicted of minor economic and social crimes, diplomatic circles in the Syrian capital did not exclude the possibility that political prisoners could also be released.
Syrian Justice Minister Hussein Hassounah said that the pardon, the first in four years, covers up to 200,000 cases, including minor traffic offences, draft dodging and the smuggling of goods and foreign currency into socialist Syria. Those included in the pardon must have been sentenced before 13 March, the day when President Assad was sworn in as president for a fifth successive term -- following a public referendum which he won uncontested with a majority of 99.99 per cent. The amnesty decree excluded embezzlers of public funds, people charged with abuse of power, corruption and possession of forged currency.
Whether or not a number of political prisoners will be included in the amnesty remains to be seen. But in support of this likelihood observers are citing the 1995 amnesty ordered by President Assad, in which some 2000 Muslim Brotherhood prisoners were included, though they were released some time after the amnesty went into effect. Political prisoners in Syria, whose numbers according to human rights groups run into the thousands, are made up mainly of communists and members of the Brotherhood. Possibly hundreds of those have been in prison without charge or trial for some 20 years, human rights groups claim.
A number of Jordanian, Palestinian and Lebanese citizens were also among those who benefited from last week's amnesty, according to official Syrian sources. None of these, however, were involved in political crimes, nor did they include any of the 12 Jordanians held in Syria on charges of spying for Israel.
There is little doubt here that the amnesty aims -- at least partly -- at improving the regime's image abroad. According to one Western diplomat, it is tantamount to "a message to the United States", that Syria is moving towards a more liberal and open society. This message, he told Al-Ahram Weekly, is especially pertinent at a time when serious efforts are being made to resume the peace process along the Syrian track.
It is in the economic field that the effects of the amnesty are most likely to be felt, however. Whether or not some political prisoners are to be released, the main beneficiaries of the amnesty have been people accused of crimes against the "socialist" economic policies of the regime. This is seen as a good sign by Syria's growing class of entrepreneurs. According to Riad Seif, a member of parliament, "the amnesty will impact positively on the Syrian economy." He went on to express his hope that the government will now embark on further economic liberalisation steps, by repealing laws which hinder private investment.