Week After Emergency Laws Abolished, Syria Arrests Dozens of Activists

Massive police sweeps reinforce opposition claims that the repeal of the state of emergency codes offers no protection against blitz-style detentions.

Syrian security forces detained dozens of opposition activists and protesters in raids on Sunday launched less than a week after Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime abolished emergency laws used for decades to crush dissent, a human rights activist said.

In the coastal town of Jableh army troops and police opened fire from rooftop positions even though no protests were in progress, killing one person and wounding several others, witnesses said. The reports said that angry residents later blocked the main highway linking the cities of Tartous and Latakia to protest the attack.

Syria protests April 23, 2011

The police sweeps, which began late Saturday, reinforce opposition claims that the repeal of the nearly 50-year-old state of emergency codes offers no protection against blitz-style detentions by Assad's forces.

Pro-democracy protesters in Syria said that they would not be satisfied by moves to reform authoritarian rule and are determined to oust Assad after the death of 100 protesters on Friday.

The death toll showed reforms Assad announced on Thursday, including the lifting of a state of emergency and abolishing the notorious state security court, were empty gestures, they said.

"What happened on Friday is a turning point. The regime has failed the reforms test. They have failed big time and proved that reforms were only on paper but not on the street," activist
Ammar Qurabi told Reuters.

"The Syrian people are becoming more impatient with every day that passes -- they are tired of promises. The people gave the authorities enough time but they are still using the policy of oppression.

"I am afraid that all people want now is the downfall of the regime," he said.

Friday's death toll was the highest since the wave of protests began last month against Assad. Another 12 people were killed on Saturday at funerals for those who died on Friday, bringing the total in five weeks of unrest to around 300.

Mourners, angered and unbowed by the severity of the crackdown, vented their fury directly at the president: "Bashar al-Assad, you traitor! Long live Syria, down with Bashar."

Authorities blame armed groups for stirring up unrest at the bidding of outside players including Lebanon and Islamist groups.

Assad has ejected most foreign media from the country during his crackdown on protesters, so independent reports of the violence are difficult to verify.

Ahead of the protests on Friday, Assad ended a draconian state of emergency, in place for 48 years. He also reshuffled the government, increased salaries and granted nationality to tens of thousands of ethnic Kurds.

Only a week ago such steps, along with freeing political prisoners, might have convinced people that the authorities were serious about reform.

"Friday... was the beginning of the end of the Syrian regime. All this blood means there is no turning back, except after fall of the regime," an activist who declined to be
identified for fear of arrest told Reuters from Damascus.

"Now, the street will never be satisfied no matter what he (Assad) does. The street wants to topple his regime," he said.


Thousands of Syrians, inspired by protests in Tunisia and Egypt which ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, took to the streets last month calling for more freedom.

"(Authorities) should stop dealing with it in a security way. God knows where we are leading now," another activist from outside Damascus said.

The lack of a single figure or group behind the protests means they are driven as much by anger and a desire to challenge the authorities as by a set of demands, the activists say.

"People driven by anger over the deaths will not go back to their homes peacefully. Things are scary as the unfolding picture is not clear," said a human rights lawyer from Damascus.

Another activist said Friday's violence meant that Assad, who said security forces were ordered not to shoot protesters, was either "ruling and lying, or he is not in charge".

What adds an edge to Syria's crisis is the sectarian rift between the ruling Alawite minority and the Sunni majority.

Analysts say toppling the system is harder in Syria because its power structure differs from that of Egypt and Tunisia, where senior generals refused to open fire on demonstrators.

Alawite loyalists occupy key positions in the Syrian military and Assad family insiders run security bodies, tying senior officers closely to Assad's own fate.

"We will not follow the Egypt model," one activist said. "If things escalate here we are looking at Yemen, Libya and Bahrain models. None are good."

"After what happened, I am regretting every minute I thought that reform is the way. The regime has already fallen -- we consider it an occupation," he said.