Syria ‘a large prison’ as crackdown continues (New Zealand TV)

WED, 04 MAY 2011.  New Zealand TV
 Facing international condemnation for its bloody crackdown on protesters, the Syrian regime is expanding a quieter intimidation campaign to keep people off the streets, according to human rights activists.

They report a sharp escalation in arbitrary arrests and unexplained disappearances – including people getting plucked from their homes and offices in the middle of the day. One example – a prominent activist in an upscale Damascus neighbourhood was reportedly bundled into a car after being beaten by security officers.

“Syrian cities have witnessed in the past few days an insane escalation by authorities who are arresting anyone with the potential to stage protests and demonstrations,” Ammar Qurabi, who heads the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

“The arrests have transformed Syria into a large prison,”

he said, estimating that more than 1,000 people had been detained since Saturday in house-to-house raids across the country.

The stepped-up campaign will have its first major test Friday – the main day for protests in the Arab world. But already there were signs that protests will continue.

Thousands of people gathered Tuesday in the coastal town of Banias, demanding freedom and urging the downfall of Syria’s authoritarian regime, two witnesses said.

“So far it is a peaceful protest,” one person said, asking not to be identified for fear of reprisals. “Some people are carrying loaves of bread and baby’s milk because our city is under siege and we can’t come or go … We are running out of supplies.”

President Bashar Assad is determined to crush the six-week-old revolt, the gravest challenge to his family’s 40-year dynasty. Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, and has maintained close ties with Iran and Islamic militant groups such as Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Rights groups say at least 545 Syrians have been killed since the uprising began in mid-March in the southern city of Daraa, spreading quickly across the nation of some 23 million people.

Most of the unrest erupts after Muslim prayers on Fridays, and the regime’s responses have become increasingly brutal as the weeks pass. Now, instead of waiting for the weekly protests, security forces are using the midweek lull to send an intimidating message.

In the coastal town of Banias, an activist said the local branch of the political security department called a mechanic Sunday to fix one of their cars and he has not been heard from since. Three other men have been missing for days after security agents picked them up at a gas station as they were filling their tank, he said.

The activist, asking that his name not be used for fear of government reprisals, said many people in the area were now afraid to come out of their homes.

Suheir Atassi, a pro-democracy activist, asked her “freedom loving” followers on Twitter to stop calling her mobile phone because security agents have intercepted the line.

“Security (agents) are answering my mobile!” she tweeted. “They have taken over the line.”

Activists’ families also were affected, according to witnesses who said suspects and their relatives were being dragged together from their homes during sweeping arrests. In Daraa, security forces are stationed in cemeteries, presumably to pinpoint families of protesters who were killed.

At least two people have not been heard from since arriving at the airport in Damascus. The missing are Al-Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvaz, who arrived Friday, and pro-reform writer Omar Koush, who landed Monday.

Also Monday, prominent Syrian engineer and pro-democracy activist Diana Jawabri was beaten by security agents and bundled into a white car in an upscale district of Damascus, said Qurabi, the human rights leader.

The tactics harken back to days of heavy-handed security rule, when even an offhand critical comment could land someone in jail for years. Under Assad’s father, Hafez, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades, reports of people getting picked up on the streets and tortured were rampant.

Although most Syrians still speak of politics in hushed tones, that atmosphere became somewhat more relaxed after Bashar Assad took over in 2000. The younger Assad still used state of emergency laws, in place….

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