Hundreds defy Assad to protest in Syria | Pakistan Today

Hundreds defy Assad to protest in Syria

DAMASCUS – Hundreds of Syrians emerged from prayers on Friday to protest, including in the flashpoint town of Daraa, in the first rallies since President Bashar al-Assad dashed hopes for greater freedoms.
Witnesses in Daraa, a southern town that has been one of the main focal points of rising dissent, said hundreds of faithful gathered after leaving a mosque.
“Death rather than humiliation,” and “National Unity,” they shouted.
Chants were also directed against Assad, whose highly anticipated speech to parliament on Wednesday failed to match the demands of pro-reform protests that erupted more than two weeks ago.
Protests were also being staged for the first time in the mainly Kurdish populated northeast, organisers said.
“Several hundred people marched peacefully in the streets of Qamishli and Amuda after Friday (Muslim) prayers chanting ‘we don’t only want citizenship but freedom as well,'” said Kurdish rights activist Radif Mustafa.
The “Friday of Martyrs” protests were expected across Syria after weekly Muslim prayers for a third week in succession.
President Assad, who is facing domestic pressure unprecedented in his 11-year rule, failed to lift almost 50 years of emergency rule in his first address to the nation since the protests demanding greater freedoms broke out on March 15.
Instead, he said there was a “conspiracy” targeting unity in Syria, blaming the country’s “enemies” for taking advantage of the needs of the people to incite division in the country ruled by emergency law since the Baath party seized power in 1963.
The Syria Revolution 2011, a wildly popular yet anonymous Facebook group that has emerged as a motor of the protests, had called for rallies at all mosques after Friday prayers until their demands for “freedom” are met.
“The real cause, the ultimate cause, is that we have been… beaten in our own streets, silenced, for more than 40 years,” one activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said ahead before the midday prayers.
“But the most pressing cause, in today’s rallies, is the president’s speech, which dashed all our hopes and expectations,” he told AFP. “We have been hearing the same speech for decades.”
In a video message posted online, Syrian human rights lawyer Haytham Maleh had called on protesters to keep up their pressure until the government bows to their demands.
“I appeal to Syrians to continue to put pressure on the authorities to fulfill the legitimate demands they have,” said Maleh, warning the government would “assume full responsibility for the consequences” of failing to satisfy the protest movement.
The protests so far have been deadly, however, with activists estimating more than 160 people killed in clashes with security forces, mainly in Daraa, a tribal area at the Jordanian border, and the coastal city of Latakia.
While small protests initially surfaced in the capital Damascus, they were quickly contained by Syria’s notorious security forces.
Reporters have witnessed activists being dragged away from Friday rallies during the past two weeks.
Officials put the death toll at about 30 and have accused Muslim extremists and “armed gangs” of pushing peaceful rallies into violence with the aim of inciting sectarian unrest in Syria, which prides itself on coexistence in a region torn by confessional strife.
In a conciliatory move, the president on Thursday ordered a string of reforms, including a study of new laws on the media and political pluralism and plans to tackle the plight of 300,000 Kurds who have been denied Syrian citizenship for close to half a century.
Assad also announced salary and pension increases for state employees, worth an estimated 800 million dollars for the year 2011.
He has also ordered an immediate investigation into the Daraa and Latakia killings and the formation of a committee to draft new laws on national security and counter-terrorism.
The committee would “pave the way for ending the state of emergency” and should complete its work by April 25.
Assad aide Buthaina Shaaban had told AFP the government intended to lift the state of emergency, which authorises the arrest and interrogation of any individual and restricts gatherings and movement, but she could not say when.
Yet the state’s attempt to reach out to protesters has failed to impress opposition movements and international rights groups, which say the president has missed a golden opportunity.

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