Syrian Bar Association Demands Political Reform in Syria

In the midst of a wave of political repression, the Damascus chapter of the Syrian Bar Association initiated a challenge to the regime to restore due process and basic civil rights.


The period 1976-1982 was marked by some of the worst internecine and police-civilian violence in Syria’s long history. In addition to frequent terrorist bombings and incidents of police brutality, there were several episodes of large-scale bloodshed. In June, 1979, Sunni protesters massacred more than sixty Alawite cadets in the military academy at Aleppo, and five hundred security police were said to have died in an explosion at their suburban Damascus offices in late 1981. Under Rifaat al-Assad, the president’s brother, military and security police were authorized to quell the rebellion with equal or greater force. On June 27, 1980, the order was given to kill all five hundred inmates, mostly security detainees, of a prison at Palmyra. Suspected dissidents were rounded up and shot on several occasions, and hundreds more died during frequent protests. The worst violence occurred during a three-week military assault in February, 1982, on the strongholds of Muslim radicals in the old section of the northern city of Hama. Thousands of people were left dead on the streets or in their homes. Baՙth Party[Bath Party]
Muslim Brotherhood
Syrian Bar Association

Arbitrary arrests and denial of basic rights of prisoners also numbered in the thousands. Among 1,384 Syrian political activists detained by the government between 1976 and 1981, there were 25 lawyers, about 150 other professionals, and several hundred students. Dozens of other conspirators against the regime were executed, by hanging or firing squad, and scores suffered brutal prison conditions, including torture to force confessions, according to Amnesty International.

Actions of the lawyers’ union and human rights committee, and their contacts with Arab and international jurists, showed the depth of their concern that the arbitrary use of counterterrorism tactics threatened the integrity of a relatively strong judicial system. The lawyers’ stand embarrassed the regime and legitimated detainees’ accusations of brutality and unfairness. Continued pressure did help to produce an end to the state of emergency, secure the release of some detainees, including ten lawyers, and achieve abolition of at least some extralegal practices in Syria. Seven years after the strike in March, 1980, at least ten lawyers, and more than ninety doctors and sixty engineers and architects, were still awaiting trial for their role in the work stoppage. The professional associations met underground, if at all, and political opposition had been effectively silenced. Optimists saw a reduced level of violence in the society and fewer political detentions; pessimists argued that the opposition had been wiped out.

The Damascus jurists who were still in a position to do so switched tactics, refraining from public confrontations with the regime but seeking to work through the Union of Arab Jurists, the International Commission of Jurists, and Amnesty International to publicize the plight of their colleagues and clients in detention. Through these channels, they continued to press for application of constitutional and legal guarantees of individual rights, including issuance of warrants and charges; rights to legal representation and appeal; inquiries into allegations of torture, “disappearances,” and extrajudicial executions; revocation of orders allowing preventive detention; and respect for families’ rights to be informed of arrests and to be permitted to visit relatives in jail. Syrian Bar Association
Human rights abuses;Syria
Syria, human rights abuses
Human rights activism

Further Reading

  • Abd-Allah, Umar F. The Islamic Struggle in Syria. Berkeley, Calif.: Mizan Press, 1983. Sympathetic portrayal of the ideology and programs of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Front and of their struggle against the Assad regime. Presents the fundamentalist movement as a just liberation movement, independent of Saudi, Iranian, or other outside influences. Portrays the Bar Association strike as an act of sympathy for the Brotherhood.
  • Dekmejian, R. Hrair. Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995. Compares Islamic movements in the Arab world and regime responses, few of them as violent as Syria’s. As elsewhere, Islam had become the banner under which elements of the traditional, educated, and merchant elites rallied alongside less privileged classes against a closed, centralized regime.
  • Nyrop, Richard F., ed. Syria: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: American University, 1979. Collection of essays on Syria’s history, society, economy, government, and national security. Chapters on politics and security emphasize formal structures: the constitutional framework and organization of executive, legislative, and civilian courts; and the regular army, irregular forces, and the Ministry of the Interior’s gendarmerie.
  • Peretz, Don. The Middle East Today. 6th ed. New York: Praeger, 1996. Several chapters on the political history of the Arab world introduce comparative studies of the government, politics, and economies of contemporary Middle Eastern states. The chapter on Syria includes details on religious sects, the several political parties in the parliament, and the country’s relations with its neighbors.
  • Seale, Patrick. Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Informative biography of Assad’s personal history, his role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in Lebanon, relations with Iran and Iraq, and counterinsurgency campaigns against the civil uprising of 1976-1982. Written for a general audience but nevertheless covers minute details and offers extensive documentation of sources.

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