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Syria to study lifting emergency law, probe deaths

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Syria remains in state of emergency
  • NEW: Activist says government is "playing around"
  • The panel will complete its work before April 25, SANA reports
  • The emergency law has been in effect since 1963

(CNN) -- Syria says it will study the idea of lifting the country's state of emergency and promptly investigate the deaths of civilians and troops in two flashpoint regions, the state news agency said on Thursday.

The moves come amid countrywide protests that have left dozens dead in Daraa and Latakia provinces, according to activists and human rights organizations.

President Bashar al-Assad ordered the Supreme Judicial Council to form a committee that would conduct "an immediate investigation in all cases that killed a number of civilians and military personnel."

"The committee will work in accordance with the law provisions and may use the help of anyone it deems appropriate to accomplish the task entrusted to it. It also has the right to request any information or documents from any party whatsoever," the report said.

The committee exploring the lifting of the emergency law is expected to complete the study before April 25. It will be made up of senior lawyers, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported. One of the key demands of the demonstrators, who have taken to the streets in the country's major cities, is the scrapping of the law, which has been in place for nearly 50 years.

The committee will "study and draw up a legislation that secures the preservation of the country's security, the dignity of citizens and combating terrorism in preparation for lifting the state of emergency," SANA said.

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The plan is "based on the directives" of al-Assad, whose failure to address the lifting of the emergency law during a nationwide speech on Wednesday prompted citizens to stage angry protests.

The emergency law allows the government to make preventive arrests and override constitutional and penal code statutes. In effect since 1963, it also bars detainees who haven't been charged from filing court complaints or from having a lawyer present during interrogations.

Reem Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Information Ministry, told CNN earlier that the emergency law "will be lifted," but she said procedures must be worked out.

"The president presented his own vision" on an announced package of reforms, Haddad said. Details will come in a "limited time frame," she said.

Reacting to the study of the emergency law, Syrian rights activist Malath Aumran was skeptical, saying, "I think they are just playing around -- they will not really make any change."

He expressed concern that the government will create a stiff anti-terror law to take the place of the emergency rules.

"They will change it and they will start executing us for terrorist crimes," he said. "It's just like they want to manipulate us -- they want to change this thing and make it something worse."

Al-Assad also ordered a 20 to 30% salary hike for state workers and employees in embassies and foreign delegations, according to a SANA report.

Syria is one of many Arabic-speaking nations beset with discontent over economic and human rights issues. Protests began in and around the southern city of Daraa and spread to other locations, including the western coastal city of Latakia.

Human Rights Watch said, "Syria's security forces have used live ammunition against protesters throughout Syria in the last two weeks, killing at least 61 in Daraa and its surrounding villages, and have arrested scores of people since large-scale demonstrations began on March 16."

There have been deaths in Latakia as well.

At least 16 people were killed in clashes there after the al-Assad speech, an eyewitness and an activist told CNN. Haddad denied any deaths in the city.

Before those disturbances, a Human Rights Watch official said at least 12 people had been killed there.

Syrian officials have put the death tolls lower in both cities, according to news reports.

More demonstrations are planned for Friday.

CNN's Mohammed Jamjoom and Tracy Doueiry contributed to this report

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