Thursday, January 19, 2006

Syria frees five political activists

Washington Post - The government freed five prominent prisoners Wednesday, including a former parliamentary leader and activist who quickly announced that he would form a new political party in the hope of opening the way for immediate democratic change.

Riad Seif, one of the country's boldest and most charismatic opposition figures, was arrested in 2001 along with nine other activists in a crackdown on democracy forums that emerged shortly after President Bashar Assad came to power in 2000. The forums marked a period of ferment dubbed the Damascus Spring, in which Syrians gathered freely for the first time in decades to demand greater democracy and an end to corruption.

The release of the activists was seen by many as an attempt to rally Syrians behind a beleaguered government that has come under intense international pressure over a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri almost a year ago. Many Lebanese and other foreign leaders have blamed Hariri's killing on Syria, which subsequently withdrew thousands of troops that had been stationed in Lebanon since 1976.