SYRIA: Activists slam closure of human rights centre
DAMASCUS, 5 March 2006 (IRIN) - Activists have slammed a government decision to close the country’s first human rights centre, which opened in mid-February with support from the European Union (EU).
“This is a sign to the EU and other countries that it’s hopeless to form civil society here and promote change,” said centre director and prominent human rights lawyer Anwar Bunni, who confirmed that the centre was shut down two days ago.
According to the government, the Damascus-based centre, which offered legal advice, counselling and training on human rights issues, was closed because it had not received official permission to operate. No one was available for comment on the issue on Sunday.
Bunni described the centre as a “red line” that civil society was unable to cross. “I remain hopeful that the decision will be reversed and we will continue our struggle,” he said. “We hope the EU will continue to support us.”
The opening of the centre on 23 February had been considered a major breakthrough on the local human rights front. At the time, the head of the EU delegation Frank Hesske to Syria said it was aimed at building “a stronger Syria”.
Hesske said the centre – a “one-stop shop” instituted to train lawyers, journalists and others on human rights issues – was intended “to ensure that internationally adopted human rights laws are adhered to.”
The centre was part of a two-year project by the Belgium-based Institute for International Assistance and Solidarity, with 93,000 Euros (US $111,000) of funding provided by the EU.
Although many observers say that rights activists are able to work more freely now than in previous years, Damascus continues to come in for heavy criticism by international human rights organisations.
In 2005, Amnesty International reported that hundreds of people had been arrested in Syria for political reasons, with many held incommunicado and allegedly tortured or mistreated. Bunni said that some 1,500 political detainees were still languishing in Syrian jails.
According to Bassam Ishak, a spokesman for the Syrian Human Rights Organisation, the closure of the centre represented a “step back for the civil society movement in Syria”. “We hope the government and the EU will reach an agreement and we hope the centre will reopen,” Ishak said.