Syria's Assad takes steps towards reforms

by Reuters
Thursday, 31 March 2011 15:53 GMT

* Emergency law to be replaced with anti-terrorism law

* New law to shield Syria's security, citizens' dignity-SANA

* Critics say new law likely to be similar to old law

* Opposition activists urge "Friday of Martyrs" protests


DAMASCUS, March 31 (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, facing a wave of protests demanding greater freedoms, took steps on Thursday towards addressing grievances including lifting emergency law and granting disenfranchised Kurds rights.

Assad, who drew international criticism for failing to spell out reforms in his first public comments on Wednesday since unrest swept Syria, also ordered an investigation into protest deaths in the flashpoint city of Deraa and the port of Latakia.

Inspired by popular revolts elsewhere in the Arab world, the unrest has presented the gravest challenge to Assad's 11-year rule in Syria, which maintains an anti-Israel alliance with Shi'ite Iran and supports militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

It was doubtful that Assad's gestures would soon defuse the unprecedented outbreak of public discontent in one of the Middle East's most tightly controlled countries.

Online activists have called on protesters to demonstrate across the country on what they have dubbed the "Friday of Martyrs" until their demands for democratisation are met.

In the past, Assad has set up committees to investigate contentious issues but no announcements were made after the initial formation. Officials have repeatedly said a draft law on allowing political parties and lifting emergency law were on the agenda of Assad's Baath Party, but they never materialised.

Repealing emergency law, in force since Assad's Baath Party took power in a coup nearly 50 years ago, has been a central demand of protests in which 61 people have been killed.

Critics, diplomats and Syrian officials doubted Assad would abolish the omnipresent law, used to snuff out any opposition, justify arbitrary arrest and give free rein to the security apparatus, without replacing it with similar legislation.

The state news agency SANA said on Thursday the panel would study and prepare "legislation including protecting the nation's security and the citizen's dignity and fighting terrorism, paving the way for lifting the emergency law".

It said the committee would complete its work by April 25, but did not elaborate.

Syrian officials in Assad's inner circle had said last week a decision had been taken to abolish emergency legislation.

But Assad, in a speech to parliament on Wednesday, made no reference to rescinding the law, or set a timetable for mooted reforms including legislation on political parties, media freedom and fighting corruption.

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