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(Updates with Human Rights Watch comments in 15th, 19th paragraphs.)
June 1 (Bloomberg) -- Anti-government protesters in Syria held nighttime rallies after President Bashar al-Assad offered a “general amnesty” covering political detainees, including members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Demonstrators took to the streets of suburbs and towns outside the capital, Damascus, and the southern governorate of Daraa, the cradle of anti-government rallies that began about 12 weeks ago, Mahmoud Merhi, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said by telephone today.
The protests follow the killing of at least 23 demonstrators in the past three days during a crackdown by security forces backed by tanks, artillery and helicopters on the central city of Homs and surrounding towns.
The death, allegedly from torture, of Hamzah al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old boy from the village of al-Jiza near Daraa, has fueled protesters’ anger, Merhi said. A video dated May 25 and posted on YouTube shows the boy’s mutilated and swollen body with cuts, bruises, burns and bullet holes, as well as broken jaw and kneecaps.
Hamzah’s death also drew a strong response from the U.S.
“What that symbolizes for many Syrians is the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work with and listen to their own people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday in Washington.
After identifying the boy by name, she said: “I can only hope this child did not die in vain, but that the Syrian government will end the brutality and begin a transition to real democracy.”
Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said in a statement yesterday it “strongly condemns all acts of violence against children everywhere,” estimating at least 30 youngsters have been killed during the unrest in Syria.
As party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Syria “has an obligation to ensure children’s right to life, to freedom of expression, to freedom of peaceful assembly, and to protection from violence, exploitation and abuse,” Unicef said, adding that “these rights must be upheld at all times.”
The amnesty issued by Assad late yesterday was swiftly rejected by the opposition as a regime ploy to gain time, the Associated Press reported.
“The pardon includes members of all political currents, including the Muslim Brotherhood,” state television said. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death under Syrian law. It wasn’t clear whether the amnesty applied to current or past membership in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The “general amnesty” specifies sentence reductions, according to the decree published on the English-language website of the official news agency SANA.
“At this point, it’s simply more talk about reform, more talk about addressing the situation, and very little action,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said at a briefing in Washington.
Syrian security forces have killed more than 1,100 demonstrators and detained more than 10,000 people since the rallies began, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights.
Crimes Against Humanity?
In a 57-page report based on interviews with more than 50 victims and witnesses to abuses and released today, New York- based Human Rights Watch said the “systematic killings and torture” by Syrian security forces in Daraa “strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity.”
Assad initially promised reforms in response to the protests, which followed popular uprisings that ousted rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. Those pledges haven’t been repeated in recent weeks as security forces stepped up their crackdown.
On May 23, the European Union announced sanctions on Syria aimed at “the highest level of leadership,” as well as a review of aid programs. The U.S. froze the assets of Assad and top officials. In a May 19 speech, President Barack Obama urged Assad to stop the killing and lead a peaceful transition to democracy or “get out of the way.”
Syria’s government has blamed the unrest on Islamic militants and “terrorist elements” seeking to destabilize the country.
“For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “They need to stop -- and if they don’t, it is the Security Council’s responsibility to make sure the people responsible face justice.”
The uprising has caused little damage to Syria’s economy, Adib Mayaleh, the governor of the central bank, said in an interview yesterday. Deposits at banks declined for 10 days, then recovered after the central bank took measures to boost confidence, Mayaleh said. This month, the bank raised the rate lenders pay on deposits by 2 percentage points and lowered the reserve requirement to 5 percent from 10 percent.
Syria’s $60 billion economy is forecast to grow 3 percent this year from 3.2 percent in 2010, the International Monetary Fund said in April, while The Institute of International Finance estimates the economy may contract 3 percent in 2011.
--With assistance from Inal Ersan in Dubai, Nayla Razzouk in Amman and Nicole Gaouette in Washington. Editors: Jennifer M. Freedman, Heather Langan
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