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Syrian Arab Republic

last updated Mar 20, 2014

Key Facts


185,180 sq km

Total Population

19,880,000 (UN 2009))

Prison Rate

58 (per 100,000 of national population)1

Capital Punishment

retained, including for ordinary crimes




not ratified



Background Information

Syria, an ethnically and religiously extremely diverse country, remained under quasi-colonial rule until 1946, when France was forced to release the Syrians into independence. What followed was a period of extreme political instability, characterised by a wave of coups reflecting internal sectarian, ethnic and ideological differences. The Arab Socialist Baath party, which seized power in 1963 in a military coup, managed to stabilise the situation and embarked on a programe of socialist and populist policies. The party implemented radical economic reforms and began building a largely secularist, albeit thoroughly autocratic, state. Since 1970, after a bloodless intra-Baath coup by Hafez al-Assad, the country has been dominated by the Assad family and, to a lesser degree, by the Alawi religious minority. Syria has has fought three wars with Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973. As a result of the defeats in 1948 and 1967, the country habours approximately 460,000 Palestinian refugees. Since 2003, the country has also received an estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees.

In the late 1970s an strong militant Islamist movement, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, developed in the country´s socially conservative trading centres, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. The Islamists began an assasination campaign against Baath party officials and members of the army, culminating in the 1982 Hama mass uprising. Troops loyal to regime were sent in to crush the revolt, in which an estimated 10,000 people were massacred. Since then, the Islamist opposition has been “successfully” contained by the government.

After the end of Communism, Syria gradually reoriented its foreign policy, and chose to participate in the Second Gulf war alongside the Allied Forces in 1991, thereafter entering peace talks with Israel . However, tensions over the Syria´s alliance with Iran, its involvement in Iraq, and the alleged support of anti-Israeli militants in Palestine and Lebanon complicate relations with major Western powers, in particular the U.S., and other regional actors. Hafez al-Assad´s son, Bashar al-Assad, became president in 2000 and was re-elected, unopposed, for a second seven-year term in 2007. During the early 2000s it seemed that the young president would allow for more political pluralism in what came to be known as the “Damascus Spring”. However, these hopes were soon disappointed. Several major waves of arrest of reformists and regime critics have taken place from 2005 onwards.

President Bashar al-Assad has directed the country on a slow but steady path towards economic liberalisation. Oil output still dominates the economy, but has been declining in recent years, making Syria a net-importer in 2008 for the first time in decades. Despite increased efforts to reform the labour market, unemployment is high, according to unofficial estimates it is close to 20%. In 2007, the GDP per capita was 1898 USD. Syria ranked at place 107 in the 2009 Human Development Report, putting it in the category of “medium human development”.

Syria, is also one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East. Power is concentrated in the hands of the president and a small circle of party leaders who, supported by security services, dominate all three branches of government. The constitution mandates the primacy of the Ba'ath party leaders in the state and society and confers extensive rights to the president. Syria does not hold meaningful presidential or multi-party elections for the legislative branch, the unicameral People´s Council. The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but courts are regularly subject to political intervention. Syria has been under Emergeny Law since 1963, with the effect that many constitutional protections for Syrian citizens are suspended and that laws issued by the president do not require ratification by the People's Council.

During the past 30 years, the Syrian government has not been only been criticised for arresting democracy, but also for arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, excessive police violence, enforced disappearances, strict control of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, or arbitrary arrest and detention of large number of regime critics, including human rights and civil society activists, journalists, and bloggers, alleged members of Muslim Brotherhood, members of pro-democracy student groups, or politically active members of one of the country´s minority communities.

In fact, the Emergency Law authorises police and security services to conduct preventive arrests and overrides constitutional and penal code provisions against arbitrary arrest and detention. Both outspoken opponents and more moderate critics of the regime are known to be continuously harassed and intimidated. If arrested, many face to trials in state security, criminal or military courts, which fail to respect international standards for fair trials. Thus, the country has a high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Conditions in prisons, in particular in those under the control of Syria´s security services, are generally poor, and the government reportedly holds prisoners and detainees without adequate medical care and denies medical treatment to some prisoners with significant health problems. Judges do not and cannot act independently, and contribute to a climate of impunity among public officials involved human rights violations. The government also severly limits a range of workers´ rights: independent unions are illegal, collective bargaining impossible in practice and labour strikes are restricted by threat of punishment and fine. On paper, Syria is one the most progressive Arab states as far as women´s rights are concerned, yet personal status laws and the penal code still discriminate against women and girls in several respects, for instance in granting leniency to perpetrators of honour killings. Two positive aspects can be mentioned: the government generally respects the right of freedom of religion, and the health care system is fairly well developed and accessible to most parts of the population. However, Kurdish areas in the North-East of the country are underdeveloped, which can be attributed to discriminatory policies of the central authorities.

In March 2011, the so-called Arab Spring expanded to Syria with protests erupting in several cities. Large demonstrations for democratisation and widespread unrest have been answered by severe action from the regime of President al-Assad. Security forces and the military entered several cities with tanks deliberately targeting anti-government protesters. More than 2,000 people were killed until the beginning of August. The high number of casualties and the relentless line of action by the government have urged the UN Security Council to condemn the use of force against civilians and to call upon Syria to end its attacks on overwhelmingly peaceful protesters. In contrast to Libya, a military intervention has so far been excluded and President al-Assad continues to exercise his presidential powers to suppress opposition movements.

Situation of Torture and Ill-Treatment

Legal Framework

Syria ratified CAT and ICCPR, but is neither party to OPCAT nor any of the optional protocols to the ICCPR. Under Article 49 (c) of the 1973 Constitution "no one may be subjected to physical or mental torture or degrading treatment and the law shall prescribe the penalties for those who commit such acts " Syrian law does not define torture in conformity with article of the Convention against Torture. According to the Syrian government, the Convention against Torture takes precedence over domestic Syrian law and every individual has the right to invoke its provisions in domestic courts. Article 391 of the Criminal Code stipulates that “anyone who batters a person with a degree of force that is not permitted by law in order to extract a confession to, or information about, an offence shall be subject to a penalty of from three months to three years in prison.” If the violence results in illness or injury, the minimum penalty is one year imprisonment. Victims of torture can file a complaint with the complaints office overseen by the Ministry of Presidential Affairs of the Republic and the Department of Public Prosecutions. The latter, under Article 5 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, has an obligation to institute public proceedings before the competent judicial body. Offenders are subject to the penalties prescribed by the Criminal Code, particularly articles 67 et seq., concerning the articles on battery and wounding. According to a statement of the Syrian government in 2000, any official who breaches the Convention and prevailing laws is subject to both a disciplinary investigation and criminal proceedings. The injured party may demand material and compensation for the injury suffered under article 142 of the Criminal Code and article 57 et seq.
of the Code of Criminal Procedures. In 2008, the government issued Legislative Decree No. 69 that stipulates that only the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces may issue an arrest warrant in the case of a crime committed by an on-duty military officer or member of the internal security forces, and that such cases may be tried only in military courts.

Practice of Torture and Ill-Treatment

According to an extensive Amnesty International´s briefing on torture in Syria submitted to the Committee against Torture in 2008 , many thousands regime critics and political activists have been arbitrarily detained, held in prolonged incommunicado detention, or simply disappeared, For instance, the fate of some 17,000 people, mostly Islamists who were victims of enforced disappearance in the late 1970s and early 1980s, remains unknown.

While torture and other ill‐treatment of criminal suspects by the police is reported to be common, the most serious allegations of torture concern the various Syrian security services, which include the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Political Security Directorate (PSD), the Syrian Air Force Intelligence (SAFI), and the Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI). According to a 2008 Amnesty International briefing to the Committee against Torture, these agencies operate generally outside the control of the legal system, hence their members are in the position to commit torture with impunity. Moreover, confessions allegedly extracted under torture appear to be accepted by courts on a regular basis. In its 2001 Concluding Observations, the Human Rights Committee noted that it had received precise and consistent reports alleging a large number of executions carried following unfair trials in which the accused were sentenced although evidence was used that had been obtained through confession that had been made under torture.“ In 2005, the Human Rights Committee reiterated its concern about continuing reports of torture and ill-treatment, and criticised the widespread practice of prolonged incommunicado detention, and also the role the Supreme State Security Court in rejecting complaints of torture court, „even in flagrant cases“.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released in November 2009 and Amnesty International´s briefing to the Committee against Torture, members of the Kurdish minority are especially likely to face torture. More generally, political detainees remain at particular risk if held incommunicado in one the detention centres run by the main security and intelligence agencies

According to the recent UN Joint Study on Secret Detention published in early 2010, Syria was also involved in proxy detention of terror suspects captured by Western intelligence services. All those able to speak about their experiences explained that they were tortured.

Sources: U.S. State Department, “2009 Human Rights Report: Syria; HRW Report, “Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria; Amnesty International {2008}, “Syria: Briefing to the Committee against Torture; UN Data Website, King´s College London, International Centre for Prison Studies, Country Profile Syria; Guardian "Arab spring: an interactive timeline of Middle East protests"