Syria not honoring Arab League initiative, rights groups say

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Story highlights

  • Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issue statements
  • The Arab League is to discuss the monitoring mission Sunday
  • Both groups say they believe Syria hasn't adhered to the Arab League plan's commitments
Syria doesn't appear to be adhering to the Arab League's effort to end the 10-month-long violent crackdown against peaceful protesters, and the league should implement appropriate action against Bashar al-Assad's regime if it fails to comply, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said Friday.
The comments come ahead of a league meeting Sunday to discuss the monitoring mission, which began December 26.
The Arab League mission is a fact-finding effort, part of larger initiative to end the conflict there, in which thousands of people have died during a bloody crackdown by security forces on peaceful protesters. Death estimates range from more than 5,000 to more than 6,000.
Under the initiative, Syria has vowed to end violence against protesters, withdraw armed forces from cities and residential areas, release detained protesters, and permit access across the country for Arab and international media. The observers want to see how and whether the government is carrying out these efforts.
Human Rights Watch said that "Syria has yet to honor most of its commitments under its agreement with the Arab League."
It said that if al-Assad's regime "fails to take the repression-ending measures it agreed to and continues to impede the monitoring mission," the league should ask the U.N. Security Council "to impose an arms embargo on Syria and sanctions against the individuals responsible for grave violations."
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"Syria seems determined to subvert Arab League efforts to end the repression," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The Arab League needs to draw clear lines regarding the Syrian government's responsibilities under the agreement and the conditions that need to be met for its monitors to do their essential work."
Human Rights Watch notes that league Secretary General Nabil el-Araby said "Syria has already taken some steps under the terms of the agreement, withdrawing heavy weapons from Syrian cities, and releasing about 3,500 prisoners."
But it cites examples of Syria failing to abide by the league initiative.
Activists reported security force attacks against peaceful demonstrators every day since the mission began and have recorded 199 deaths.
Security forces fired on demonstrators leaving a mosque in the al-Midan neighborhood of Damascus on Friday, Human Rights Watch said. That's the neighborhood where the government reported a suicide bombing Friday that killed at least 26 people.
It says activists have been detained since Syria signed its agreement with the Arab League and the country has transferred detainees to "holding centers at military sites" in order "to hide them from monitors" promised full access to detention facilities, police stations and hospitals.
Reports indicate that since the Syrian government signed the Arab League agreement, it has detained activists.
Human Rights Watch said Syria appeared to be "violating its pledge" to protect people who talk to monitors, and it cited an example of a person who was detained after speaking to them.
"The Arab League should investigate credible reports of reprisals against Syrians who communicate with its monitors and take its own measures to protect those it interviews, including refusing to allow Syrian government agents to monitor interviews, establishing information security systems to protect the confidentiality of information provided by victims and witnesses who request it, and denouncing any reprisals publicly," it said.
The group urged the Arab League to use "monitors who have expertise in human rights and in forensic investigations" and get "technical support" from the United Nations' high commissioner for human rights. It also called for making the league's reports public and detailing criteria it uses to pick monitors.
"These measures will enhance the mission's credibility, which has been clouded by the appointment as its chief" -- Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, who once was in charge of Sudan's military intelligence.
"Al-Dabi oversaw an intelligence agency well known for serious abuses in Sudan and is a close political ally of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, against whom the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity in Darfur," Human Rights Watch said.
Amnesty International said the Sunday meeting is a "key opportunity to clarify ongoing allegations about serious human rights violations in Syria,."
"When they report on their preliminary findings this Sunday, we hope those findings will be made public to give the international community a clear picture of the current situation on the ground in Syria, where human rights violations appear to be continuing unabated."
Amnesty said many Syrian human rights activists told them that grave human rights concerns remain, despite the presence of the mission.
"A strong Arab League condemnation of the al-Assad government's violations would further build the case for decisive U.N. action to deliver justice and accountability for the brutal crackdown."
"By their mere presence in Syria, the Arab League's observer mission has given encouragement to the protesters to return to the streets in larger numbers and given more visibility to human rights concerns, but robust action is now needed to stop the violence," said Ann Harrison, interim deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
"A strong Arab League condemnation of the al-Assad government's violations would further build the case for decisive U.N. action to deliver justice and accountability for the brutal crackdown."
Amnesty said that 134 people, and possibly many more, have been killed since the mission began.
"Many more have been arrested for their real or suspected involvement in the pro-reform movement, while the Syrian authorities have failed to release thousands of others similarly detained," it said.
Amnesty questions el-Araby's assertion that more than 3,500 political prisoners have been released. It also said detainees have been taken to hidden detention centers to keep them from Arab League observers.
"No list of released prisoners has been made public, and Syrian activists have told Amnesty International that they believe the number of such prisoners released was much lower, adding that scores or hundreds of additional political activists were arrested in the last week, including in Aleppo, Latakia and Daraya," Amnesty said.
Regarding the withdrawal of forces and equipment, activists told Amnesty that "tanks were often just moved away for the duration of the observers' visits and that pro-government snipers remain in many residential areas, where they continue to threaten protesters and others going about their daily business."
Amnesty, which wants human rights groups to be granted access to the country, urged the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, "impose a comprehensive arms embargo" and "freeze the assets of President al-Assad and others involved in human rights violations." The Security Council, it said, is expected to discuss the Syrian situation Tuesday.