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Syrian Cabinet moves to lift emergency law while clashes rage

From Rima Maktabi, Joe Sterling and Arwa Damon, CNN
A picture taken by a mobile phone shows a funeral in Homs, 100 miles to the north of Damascus on Monday, April 18.
A picture taken by a mobile phone shows a funeral in Homs, 100 miles to the north of Damascus on Monday, April 18.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An activist says three protesters died after security forces fired lethal rounds in Homs
  • The government says two security officers in the city were slain
  • Syria orders citizens not to stage mass protests

(CNN) -- Syria's Cabinet passed a bill abolishing the country's notorious state-of-emergency law as another day of clashes erupted in the simmering country's heartland, Syrian media reported Tuesday.

The decision is among several measures passed on legislative decrees by Syria's recently appointed Council of Ministers. President Bashar al-Assad has to give the final approval to the move, according to analysts.

Opposition forces have been demanding the repeal of the 48-year-old emergency law, which allows the government to make preventive arrests and override constitutional and penal code statutes. The law also bars detainees who haven't been charged from filing court complaints or from having a lawyer present during interrogations.

The Cabinet also passed a bill on a legislative decree to require citizens to obtain permits for demonstrations, which have always been permitted in Syria. It also approved "a draft decree to cancel the Supreme State Security Court," a special court that prosecutes people regarded as challenging the government.

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  • Bashar Assad
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The measures were passed after three or four protesters were killed and many others were wounded in Homs when security forces assaulted activists, a human rights activist and a witness told CNN on Tuesday.

The developments come as al-Assad tries to cope with widespread discontent, illustrated by bloody confrontations that have snowballed across the country since mid-March.

"The package of strategic bills is part of the political reform program that aims at bolstering democracy, expanding citizens' participation, strengthening national unity, guaranteeing the safety of country and citizens, and confronting various citizens," state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

Al-Assad, who has been promising reforms for years, has indicated that he is amenable to making changes demanded by demonstrators. On Saturday, al-Assad urged his new Cabinet to lift the country's state of emergency, which has been in effect since 1963.

Activists have said that the regime's security forces have ruthlessly broken up peaceful protests despite talk of reform.

One analyst, Andrew J. Tabler, a Next Generation fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees with protesters that al-Assad has promised reform before and hasn't followed through.

Tabler said he is skeptical about the Cabinet moves, since al-Assad could have made the decrees himself, and said he believes Syria could change the emergency decree to an anti-terrorism law that will be the legal basis for continued repression. He also said there are other laws on the books that would allow the regime to persist in its practices.

"It's getting more bloody. I think it will continue to do so," Tabler said. "It's definitely not headed in a good direction."

Tabler pointed out that the present government rhetoric is reminiscent of the early 1980s, when the minority Alawite government violently suppressed a Sunni Muslim uprising in the city of Hama. He referred to an Interior Ministry statement blaming "Salafi armed groups" for killing security forces and civilians and terrorizing citizens.

Salafis are Sunni Muslims who adhere to a literalist reading of scripture, according to the International Crisis Group. Tabler describes the Alawites as a heterodox offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Homs -- a metropolis more than 100 miles north of Damascus -- was the site of overnight protests.

About 2,000 people demonstrated in the Homs main square, but security forces repeatedly asked them to disperse and said they would be forcibly removed if they remained, said activist Razan Zeitouneh, who was in another location in Syria but spoke to protesters from the scene.

The activist said that around 2 a.m. Tuesday, security forces fired using lethal rounds in fighting that lasted around two hours, killing at least three people and wounding dozens more.

A 37-year-old man in Homs who took part in the sit-in said the secret service and security forces -- but not the army -- shot live ammunition and tear gas at protesters, with at least four killed and many injured.

"We have taken them to clinics because we do not want them to be arrested by the security forces. We are treating their wounds secretly."

He said religious sheikhs from Homs negotiated with members of a presidential delegation and persuaded them to permit a sit-in.

"They broke their promises. While we were chanting at 2 a.m., 'Down with the regime,' the security forces started shooting at us," he said.

It is impossible to independently authenticate the claims. The Syrian Arab News Agency cited an official source who said that on Tuesday, "armed criminal groups" in Homs shot and killed two security officials, Sgt. Maj. Ghassan Mehrez and Col. Mohammad Abdo Khaddour.

"The treacherous and criminal armed groups controlled by sides abroad insisted upon carrying out their criminal plots," SANA said.

This comes as the Syrian Interior Ministry urged Syrian citizens to refrain from mass rallies, protests and strikes "for any reason to help in establishing stability and safety."

Scores of people have died, and al-Assad's government has been criticized for using lethal force.

Human Rights Watch, a prominent humanitarian watchdog group, issued a report Friday detailing "torture and ill-treatment" of protesters over the past month, and United Nations human rights experts released a statement deploring the crackdown on peaceful demonstrations.

In a speech to his new government, published in English on SANA's website, al-Assad promised change.

"The world is moving fast around us, and we need to move at the same pace so that we can say that we are developing," he said.

He also said an investigation committee is looking into the recent deaths of protesters and sent his condolences to the families of those killed during the unrest.

"We consider them all martyrs, whether they were civilians, members of the police or the armed forces," al-Assad said.

Mohamad Bazzi, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, said al-Assad is facing the Baathist regime's "most serious challenge" in decades and that he hasn't been able to find a way to quell the protests.

He said the Cabinet's moves meet "the bare minimum of the demands of the protesters" and "doubts it's going to appease" them.

"It's especially troublesome for Assad that the unrest started in Sunni areas that traditionally supported the Baath Party and have provided recruits for the Syrian military," he said.

The arrests of 15 teenagers for writing anti-government graffiti in Daraa last month -- an incident pointed to by many as the catalyst of the unrest -- "set off large demonstrations, which led to clashes with security forces and dozens of casualties," Bazzi said.

"Assad and his advisers bungled the initial response: The president failed to offer condolences to the families of those killed or to visit the town, setting off a new round of protests that spread to other areas. As the crackdown intensified, demonstrators also honed their rhetoric from demands for 'freedom' and 'dignity' -- and an end to abuses by the security forces -- to calls for Assad's overthrow.

"He is squandering this political capital as his crackdown intensifies and he continues to ignore the need for fundamental change," Bazzi said.

"We're also seeing these dire warnings from Assad's regime, that if the protests don't stop, there's going to be a bloodier crackdown."

As for the public outpourings, Zeitouneh said funerals have begun for those killed in Homs and others killed in Latakia. She said people in Baniyas are chanting they aren't Salafis.

Zeitouneh also is asking whether those convicted under the emergency law would be released and whether new laws would simply create the framework for the government to initiate an even greater crackdown.

She said that demonstrations would continue -- the people's demands are for a free and democratic country.

The 37-year-old witness in Homs echoed the activist: "We will continue our protests, we will bring down the regime and the allegations by the regime that we are Muslim Brotherhood and extremists are all lies ... We are not armed, we are the people of Syria, and we will continue our protests."

CNN's Arwa Damon is reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Joe Sterling and Rima Maktabi from Atlanta

 
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