4 min read  | Culture & Society, Damascus

Bashar al-Assad issues general amnesty excluding prisoners of conscience: Who benefits and why now?


May 10, 2021

AMMAN — Ahead of Syrian presidential elections scheduled for May 26 (and May 2o for expatriates), Bashar al-Assad issued a legislative decree on May 2 granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before that date, which is the 18th general amnesty since the Syrian revolution broke out in the spring of 2011. 

After winning the previous 2014 presidential election, al-Assad issued a general amnesty, citing “social tolerance, national cohesion and the requirements of coexistence.” But the latest decree has been put forward just before the elections with the aim of “using it as a tool for propaganda to increase his popularity, as it is the last card in his deck,” Mustafa al-Qasem, a former judge who defected from the regime, said. “He is unable to take any real step of reform that would revive the country’s economy, improve Syrians’ standard of living and repair the state’s infrastructure. “

A ‘fictitious’ amnesty

Legislative Decree No. 13 of 2021, which contains 23 detailed articles, includes an amnesty for all or part of the penalty for a crime. It grants an amnesty “for misdemeanors, contraventions, measures of reforms and patronage for the juveniles.” It also grants amnesty for some felonies, such as “undermining the prestige of the state.”

The decree grants pardon to “two-thirds of the penalty for certain misdemeanors, such as bribery or falsification of official records, and half the temporary penalty for all misdemeanors and juvenile offenses, except those excluded in its provisions, as well as one-third of the penalty for smuggling and drug trafficking crimes,” according to the official Facebook page for the Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic. 

Exceptions not covered by the amnesty decree include weapons and explosives smuggling felonies and crimes resulting in human death. Fines levied for offenses were also not covered by the decree. 

Additionally, “persons in hiding or fugitives from justice for crimes covered by this legislative decree” do not benefit from the pardon “unless they turn themselves in to the relevant authorities within six months of [the decree’s] issuing.” 

However, contrary to what the Presidency of the Republic’s official Facebook page description of the amnesty as “one of the most comprehensive amnesty decrees for perpetrators of violations, misdemeanors and felonies,” former judge al-Qasem said, “it is, in essence, no different from previous decrees, as it did not include political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.” The number of such prisoners and forcibly disappeared people is estimated at some 149,361 persons, according to figures published by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) in March.

Apart from that, “the exceptions included in the legislative decree limit its effectiveness and empty it of meaning,” al-Qasem added, as “the regime leaves the possibility for it to be selectively applied.” While the amnesty covered “those arrested for crimes of undermining state prestige, other charges may be brought against them with the complicity of some judges in order to undermine their release.” 

The amnesty will also not apply to detainees who are not referred to the courts, “such as those forcibly disappeared or forgotten in secret regime detention centers, the basements of intelligence branches and detention facilities belonging to Iranian militias and Hezbollah,” al-Qasem said. Those who benefit from the “fictitious amnesty are a few people with ordinary and criminal offenses.”

Deception and extortion

While Bashar al-Assad issues general amnesty decrees that do not include prisoners of conscience, he frees up his security forces to detain more people. In April, just before the latest amnesty, the SNHR documented 147 cases of arbitrary arrest or detention in Syria, 56 of which were by regime forces. 

This means the regime uses amnesty decrees “in a misleading way, to send political messages inside and outside” the country, according to Mazen Darwish, the Director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. The aim is to “show its response to the demands of the international community,” Darwish told Syria Direct

But “the messages of endearment issued by the regime, through which it seeks to present itself to the international community as an initiator of peace, will not succeed without going as far as a real amnesty and washing the public and secret prisons clean,” al-Qasem said. 

The legislative decrees issued by al-Assad over the past decade do not “constitute a solution to the issues of arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial killings,” Darwish said. He stressed the need to “change the political and legal structure of the regime in Syria, limiting the powers of the security service to their least extent and subjecting them to the authority of the law” as well as “ending the immunities  enjoyed by their affiliates and subjecting their work to an independent judiciary.” He also emphasized the necessity of “establishing an independent body with broad powers to resolve the issue of the disappeared and missing in Syria.” 

Further, the regime has tried to “extract money from the perpetrators of crimes through the current amnesty,” according to Samer Aldeyaei, the Executive Director of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, citing “the conditions at the end of the decree’s provisions related to financial crimes.” 

As the regime-controlled areas are undergoing an economic crisis and the Syrian pound and its exchange rate are low against the US dollar, “the amnesty decree, according to some of its clauses, provides the regime with large sums,” Aldeyaei told Syria Direct, especially given “violators’ willingness to pay fines in exchange for a prison sentence being dropped.” 

The decree grants a full amnesty for “smuggling crimes, on the condition that a settlement is made with the Customs Administration, and drug abuse crimes and crimes of dealing in [currencies] other than the Syrian pound on condition of paying fines to the Central Bank of Syria.  [Meanwhile] it did not cover crimes for customs, construction, electricity and exchange violations, and all fines related to financial compensation.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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