The embattled Syrian regime is pushing ahead with its campaign of repression against political and human rights activists, holding many of them incommunicado and going after their families and friends, Human Rights Watch said.
“Syria’s leaders talk about a war against terrorists, but what we see on the ground is a war against ordinary Syrians — lawyers, human rights activists, and university students — who are calling for democratic changes in their country,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the New York-based organisation, said in a statement late Sunday.
“Syria’s emergency law may have been lifted on paper, but repression is still the rule on Syria’s streets.”
Syrian authorities have rounded up thousands of anti-regime protesters and activists amid a brutal crackdown to crush an unprecedented revolt that began March 15 and is threatening the country’s minority Shiite Alawite government.
Several activists, including prominent opposition figure Riad Seif and rights activist Catherine Talli, were released on Sunday.
Human Rights Watch said that in some cases, security forces had detained relatives and neighbours of the government critics in a bid to gather information on their whereabouts.
“The Syrian government is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to detain and punish every last voice for civil society reform in the country,” said Whitson.
She said many activists had chosen to send their families into hiding to ensure their security.
One prominent opposition activist who did not want his name used told HRW how his neighbour and shop owners near his wife’s workplace had been detained in order to disclose his and his family’s whereabouts.
“When families and neighbours of wanted activists are fair game for the security services and their Baath thug agents, you know that the government is morally bankrupt,” said Whitson, referring to the ruling Baath party.
“Behind the empty rhetoric of promises and national dialogue, there is a systematic campaign to rebuild Syria’s wall of fear with only one purpose: allowing (President Bashar) al-Assad and his cronies to maintain their absolute grip on power.”
The United Sates and European Union have imposed sanctions on members of Assad’s inner circle but stopped short of targeting him personally.