Syrian President Bashar Assad declares general amnesty for prisoners

Syrian President Bashar Assad issues a general amnesty for prisoners

Syrian President Bashar Assad, who won reelection last week amid the country's three-year civil war, issued a general amnesty for prisoners Monday.

The Syrian state news agency SANA reported that the wide-ranging edict included the commuting of death sentences to life sentences, reduction of life sentences to 20 years, and some pardons.

The amnesty covers many prisoners held for violations of Syria's counter-terrorism law, which was introduced in July 2012 and gave authorities sweeping powers to apprehend individuals for crimes such as "spreading false news" or "promoting causes that would weaken national feeling or awaken sectarian bias," the news agency reported. Human rights activists contend that the law criminalizes any opposition activity.

The amnesty also includes non-Syrians provided that they surrender to authorities within a month. The Syrian government routinely accuses armed opposition forces of being made up of large numbers of foreign fighters.

Exact figures for the number of prisoners who will benefit from the amnesty were unavailable. International rights groups and opposition activists say tens of thousands of anti-government protesters and their supporters have been imprisoned.

Justice Minister Najm Hamad Ahmad hailed the amnesty as part of the "framework of social forgiveness and national unity" despite government forces "facing the powers of evil and darkness," a reference to the uprisings and fighting that have gripped the country since March 2011.

"The effect of the amnesty ... gives the chance for all who are in hiding or who have escaped from justice to reconcile their situation according to its edicts," he told the state news agency, clarifying that some crimes that led to death or permanent disability would not be pardoned.

The civil war has resulted in the devastation of large swaths of the country and the deaths of more than 160,000 people, according to some estimates.

Opposition activists have slammed the Syrian government for kidnapping and holding tens of thousands of Syrians in horrific conditions, often subjecting detainees to torture and extra-judicial killings. Rebels, especially the extremist Islamist groups that operate largely in the northern and eastern provinces of the country, have similar allegations leveled against them.

The government's amnesty, following a smaller scale pardon last week in celebration of Assad winning a third seven-year term in a pro forma election, was met with a mixture of hope and derision on social media.

"May God bring joy to those mothers for the return of their children ... the amnesty decision includes a large number of those detained," declared the Facebook community page Aleppo Eye Witness.

Another social media post said that those who would be released would immediately return to the fighting fronts, taking advantage of the "idiocy of the regime."

The pro-opposition, Britain-based watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published a statement lamenting that the decree comes after the deaths of many others.

"We in the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights congratulate those arrested who will be released to freedom by this pardon, which we do not consider to be 'generosity' on the part of the regime ... but instead it is the most basic of rights for the detained who were arrested for expressing their opinion."

Some rebel fighters viewed the amnesty with suspicion, saying that similar moves in the past had little effect and that the regime had published false names for those released.

"According to the regime's announcements, this pardon includes political prisoners, but so far none have been released, and there are many who have not been released although they were in prison from the beginning of the uprising," said Hassan Taqi Al-Din, an opposition activist in Damascus province contacted via Skype. "This pardon came now for Assad to prove to the world and the international community his 'good intent'... but the move on the ground is not at all like that."

Abu Huthayfa, a rebel spokesman based on the Turkish-Syrian border, took a more pragmatic tone.

"The battle in Syria is a military one, and events on the ground are what change things," Huthayfah said via Skype. "As for Bashar's edicts and the opposition's conferences and the statements of the U.S. State Department, they have no effect."

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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