Parliamentary question by Olivier Dupuis (NI) to the Commission and answer given by Mr Patten on behalf of the Commission

Parliamentary questions
by Olivier Dupuis (NI) to the Commission
(07 June 2002)

Subject: Syria

On 29 May Mr Riad Turk, a Syrian dissident who has spent seventeen years in jail for his beliefs, appeared before the State Security Court in Damascus (a special court that was set up in the early 1960s under the state of emergency act, and whose authority is disputed) to answer charges of "trying to change the constitution by unlawful means", of "undermining the morale and image of the nation" and of other crimes of opinion. Like Mr Turk, any other dissidents, intellectuals and businessmen have been arrested and accused of criticising the Syrian dictatorship. On coming to power, Mr Bashar Al-Assad announced the start of a process of democratisation (an announcement which met with the enthusiastic support of the international community), but the "new" regime soon showed that it had no real intention of introducing genuine economic or political reforms. Fundamental freedoms continue to be brutally suppressed and any initiatives that do not originate in the corridors of power are still trampled underfoot. The latest wave of repression carried out by this hereditary dictatorship resulted in the arrest of Mr Turk and of nine other people who had criticised the government.

What initiatives has the Commission taken or does it intend to take to secure the immediate release of Mr Turk and the other political opponents who have been arrested? Does the Commission not believe that the "honeymoon period" that the international community has accorded Bashar Al-Assad is no longer justified and that the European Union should take note that the promises made by Mr Al-Assad were nothing more than a web of lies. Lastly, does the Commission not believe that the circumstances merit its sending a clear signal to the authorities in Damascus by putting the EU-Syria association agreement negotiations on hold indefinitely?

Answer given by Mr Patten
on behalf of the Commission
(12 July 2002)

The Commission participates fully in the Union's endeavours to support human rights in Syria. Our aim is to establish a constructive dialogue with the Syrian authorities on human rights issues on the basis of principles expressed in the Barcelona Declaration. In this regard, Union Troika demarches were made after the arrests of opposition personalities, including Mr Al-Turk, in August/September 2001, and after the convictions of the two Members of Parliament, Mr. Al-Homsi and Mr Riad Seif in March/April 2002.

Through the Commission's Delegation in Damascus, the Commission also participates in the Union observation of trials. We regret that recently Union observers have on some occasions been excluded from the trial against Mr Al-Turk. While the Commission welcomes the opportunity to observe trials in Syria, it also realises that the mere presence of observers at trials must not become a substitute for the fairness of court procedures. The Commission, therefore, through its Delegation in Syria, will continue together with Member States Embassies, to follow as closely as possible the trial against Mr Al-Turk.

The Commission will also continue to raise its concerns, regarding both the general human rights situation and individual cases, with the Syrian authorities and will call upon Syria to respect freedom of expression and of association in line with the Barcelona Declaration (of 27 and 28 November 1995).

Regarding the negotiations of an Association Agreement, the Commission continues to believe that a dialogue on human rights will be more effective in the framework of a contractual relationship such as foreseen in the Association Agreements within the Barcelona Process. The Agreement, which includes provisions on free trade, cooperation and political dialogue along with the vital clause on human rights and democratisation, will constitute an important instrument for opening and democratisation of Syrian society.