DAMASCUS: Syria has begun releasing prisoners, many of whom were held without charge, under the broadest amnesty the country has seen since the Assad clan took power nearly 50 years ago.
The amnesty declared by President Bashar Al Assad came a week after his controversial re-election as he seeks to portray himself as the champion of reconciliation in the war-torn country.
Assad is due to be sworn in for a new term on July 17.
“This is the most important amnesty since Hafez Al Assad (the president’s father and predecessor) came to power nearly 45 years ago,” said human rights lawyer and ex-prisoner of conscience Anwar Al Bunni.
He said the amnesty should cover “tens of thousands of prisoners behind bars because of the anti-terror law passed in July 2012”, more than a year into an anti-regime revolt.
According to Bunni, “dozens of prisoners began to be released from Adra prison (in Damascus province) yesterday (Monday) and the releases will continue today.”
State television showed dozens of prisoners being freed in Hama in central Syria.
The amnesty is unprecedented because it extends for the first time to those accused under anti-terrorism legislation.
The government accuses all those opposed to Assad’s rule — armed opposition fighters and peaceful activists alike — of “terrorism”, and used the law to imprison high-profile dissidents.
The amnesty is also the first to offer clemency to foreign rebel jihadists, as long as they hand themselves in within a month.
Army deserters will receive full pardons if they hand themselves in within three months of the decree.
But it was unclear how many prisoners could be freed, as previous clemency decisions have not seen large numbers released.
Lawyer Michel Shammas said it was unclear how the decree would apply for thousands of people detained in branches of Syria’s notorious security establishment, where torture is systematic.
“Mazen Darwish, Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir will be released, as will activist Leyla Awad, psychologist Jamal Nawfal and Raneem Maatuq, daughter of (jailed lawyer) Khalil Maatuq,” Shammas said.
“But there is no meaning for an amnesty if it doesn’t include all the detainees, and we don’t know yet how the decree will be applied for more than 50,000 people being held in security branches.”
Darwish, Ghreir and Zaitani were arrested in February 2012 at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, where they work.
The three face trial for activities “such as monitoring online news and publishing the names of the dead and disappeared”.
Meanwhile, Homs Governor Talal Al Barazi said that more than 100 people who handed themselves in after being trapped by a nearly two-year siege of the central city will be home within 72 hours.
Yesterday, violence raged on as warplanes pounded rebel areas of Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and Damascus province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based monitoring group also reported the detention of two activists, one in Damascus and the other in Banias, in a sign that the practice of detention is deeply entrenched in the system.
In Geneva, a former international war crimes prosecutor said Assad tops a list of 20 sample war crimes indictments of government officials and rebels drafted by experts for prosecution someday.
The list has been handed to the International Criminal Court (ICC), citing for each incident a specific violation of the Rome statute under which a suspect could be charged, according to David Crane, an ex-chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and now head of the Syria Accountability Project.
A separate team of UN investigators has drawn up four confidential lists of war crimes suspects on all sides in Syria, but declined to reveal any names.
Crane said the list compiled by his expert group included members of Syria’s military and political elite plus Islamist rebel groups ISIS and Al Nusra Front, although he gave no names beyond Assad.