This February, in the Military Court in Damascus, 18 Kurds stood trial for 'activity against the authority of the state' for their alleged role in a riot in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli in March 2004. All 18 told the judge they had been tortured with electricity while in prison. One man said he had been sodomized with a piece of wood and said he had the medical report to prove it.
Such assaults on criminal justice seem to have little impact on the outcome of trials. Also in February, six men on trial for similar charges brought eyewitnesses who said the accused could not have been in the city at the time of the riot. All six were sent to prison. 'The court makes a decision before the trial begins,' explains Anwar Bunni, a leading Syrian human rights lawyer.
These cases highlight some of the critical issues at the heart of human rights in Syria. The country has had emergency laws in place since the ruling Ba'ath Party's rise to power 42 years ago. Under the laws, the security services can charge people for 'opposing the party's revolutionary goals' or 'harming the state's reputation'. 'If you make a joke against the President you go to jail for six months,' says Bunni, whose three brothers and a sister served a total of 60 years between them in Syrian prisons for expounding communist ideas during the late 1970s.
Human rights lawyers estimate Syria holds around 2,000 political prisoners, including 200 Kurds, more than 50 of whom began a hunger strike on 8 February 2005 to protest against the torture they say they have suffered in jail. An Amnesty International report in September 2004 said '38 types of torture and ill-treatment' had been documented as being used in Syria.
'Exception courts' such as the Military Court (to which journalists, the public and lawyers are allowed access) or the Supreme State Security Court (to which they are not) are widely used. According to the UN Human Rights Committee they are 'incompatible with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a state party'.
However, into such darkness some faint rays of light have recently shone. In December 112 political prisoners, mostly members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, were released - the largest single amnesty in three years. The following day Syrian police dispersed more than 100 activists who blocked traffic in central Damascus. It was the first time SANA, the official state-run news agency, had ever reported such a civic demonstration. Two months later a further 55 political prisoners, who had spent up to 20 years in prison, were released.
'In 1992 we spoke but nobody listened. We were lonely in front of this regime. But things are changing,' says Bunni, ' particularly because of the intense pressure Syria is coming under from outside. 2005 will be a very important year for human rights in this region. But any change must come from a change in the laws. Until now, this is not happening.'