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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Syria signs law imposing dealth penalty on those arming 'terrorists'

Soldiers of the Free Syrian Army, formed by army deserters,
take up positions in an undisclosed location in Syria.
Credit: Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/AFP/Getty Images
The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has signed into effect a law imposing the death penalty on anyone arming "terrorists", according to state media amid mounting clashes with rebel troops.

"The law provides for the death penalty for anyone providing weapons or helping to provide weapons intended for the carrying out of terrorist acts," the official SANA news agency said.

The decree also imposes life imprisonment with hard labor for arms smuggling "for profit or to carry out acts of terrorism," and 15 years' hear labor for arms smuggling for other purposes.

The Syrian authorities contend that protests raging since March are the work of "armed terrorists" not civilian demonstrators as maintained by Western governments and human rights groups.

The UN General Assembly on Monday overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning human rights abuses during the authorities' crackdown on the protests, which the world body says has left more than 5,000 people dead.

It comes as Syria was accused of engaging in a time-buying ruse on Monday after it agreed to allow the Arab League to send observers into the country, temporarily averting a threat by regional powers to refer Damascus to the UN Security Council.

The body of Tamer Mutlaq is carried in a coffin through the
streets of Homs. Credit: AP
After weeks of equivocation, the Syrian government formally signed a protocol permitting the deployment of 500 Arab League monitors tasked with monitoring the implementation of a peace plan meant to end months of deadly violence in the country.

Walid al-Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, hailed the beginning of a new era of "cooperation" between his government and the Arab League but few observers held out much hope that the apparent breakthrough would end the bloodshed.

President Bashar al-Assad has on several occasions promised to abide by the terms of the Arab League's peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of all army troops from the streets of Syrian cities and the beginning of negotiations with the opposition.

But he has shown little appetite for implementing the terms of the deal, with Syria's security forces accused of carrying out atrocities on a daily basis. More than 1,000 people are believed to have been killed in the past month alone, bringing the overall civilian death toll since the beginning of the uprising in March to at least 5,000, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Assad's intransigence has angered the Arab League, which has responded by suspending Syria's membership and imposing economic sanctions.

A still taken from an amateur video of soldiers walking down
the street in Daraa, Syria.
The Assad regime had made several verbal promises to allow observers into Syria, only to erect numerous obstacles to their deployment that the bloc saw as unacceptable.

Its climb-down yesterday came two days before the expiry of another Arab League deadline to accept the monitors. Qatar, which leads the bloc's Syria monitoring group, had threatened to refer Damascus to the Security Council if it failed to comply, paving the way for possible UN sanctions against Mr. Assad and his ministers.

Russia and China have so far blocked Security Council resolutions on Syria, but any initiative backed by the Arab League would have been harder for them to resist, observers say.

Despite the regime's apparent change of heart, Syria's main opposition coalition warned that Mr. Assad had no intention of ending the violence.

"The Syrian regime is maneuvering to try to prevent the Syrian file being submitted to the UN Security Council," said Burhan Ghaliun, leader of the Syrian National Council. "This is just a ploy. They have no intention of implementing any initiative."

How much independent access the observers will be given to Syria's most restive cities remains far from clear.

While Mr. Moallem promised they would be "free" he also insisted that they would operate "under the protection of the Syrian government." He also predicted that the mission would vindicate the regime's insistence that it was fighting a "terrorist" insurgency.

"These are many countries in the world who don't wish to admit the presence of terrorist armed groups in Syria," he said. "They will come and see that they are present. We must not be afraid at all."

In an effort to shore up its authority, the government organized a large loyalist demonstration in central Damascus.

Opposition protesters who gathered elsewhere in the capital came under fire. At least two were killed, with more than 10 deaths reported yesterday across Syria.

Observers said there was little chance of Mr. Assad ordering his troops off the street, a move that could well trigger mass demonstrations, increasing pressure on the president to resign. At the same time, he is facing a growing armed rebellion, with army defectors clashing with the security forces and loyalist militiamen on an increasingly frequent basis.

A senior rebel officer claimed that the government was planning to execute 21 opposition fighters imminently, a move that would raise tensions significantly.

While the Arab League has won praise in the West for its robust response to Syria's crisis, the bloc's actions were dismissed as a "joke" yesterday by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.

"Some regional countries, which have never held an election, have come together to pass resolutions against another country, saying: 'why don't you hold an election'?" he said.


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