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Middle East: Syria Urged To End Abuses Against Kurds

Amnesty International has issued a new report urging the Syrian government to end human rights abuses against the country's Kurdish population. The rebuke comes one year after bloody clashes between Kurds and authorities left more than 30 people dead. The rights group says the government in Damascus should open an investigation into last year's incidents.

Prague, 10 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Last year's unrest was sparked during a football match in the northeastern city of Qamishli.

On 12 March 2004, a violent dispute erupted between rival Arab and Kurdish fans. Security forces responded by firing into the crowd, reportedly only into the Kurdish section. Several people were killed. The next day, police forces fired on a funeral procession and demonstration. Then protests and riots spread rapidly to other cities.

Amnesty International says at least 36 people -- almost all Kurds -- were killed. Some 2,000 people, mostly Kurds, were arrested. Dozens of Kurdish students were expelled from their universities and dormitories for participating in peaceful protests.

There are no signs that any official investigation took place to determine the root causes of the incidents.

Neil Sammonds is an Amnesty International researcher on Syria. He says there is still a lot of confusion about last year's events. "We think there needs to be an immediate investigation into what really happened and into the security forces' use of lethal force against apparently non-armed protesters," Sammonds said. "And there's been a huge amount of report of torture, which we have received, and these need to be investigated. There have been people held in communicado for months and months without charge."

The vice president of the Human Rights Association of Syria, Sali Kheir Bek, told RFE/RL that 230 Kurds remain in jail after their arrests during the clashes last March.

Kheir Bek said a peaceful demonstration was due to be held on Thursday in front of Damascus' main court for the release of all political prisoners in the country, including Kurdish political prisoners. "We are asking (the government) to cancel acting by the emergency law," Kheir Bek said. "(We are) asking (the government ) to free the political prisoners, to get all the political people outside of Syria to comeback without any kind of trial or something like this, and to issue a law to form parties and associations and to declare a [date] for free elections."

Amnesty International in its new report urges the Syrian authorities to investigate allegations of unlawful killings, deaths resulting from torture, ill treatment in custody and torture of Kurds that have come to light since March 2004.

Amnesty researcher Sammonds says that during the past year, there have been an increase in the number of reported deaths of Kurdish prisoners as a result of torture in custody. "We've had about nine reported cases of death in custody," Sammonds said. "Five of these are Syrian Kurds, and we've seen medical reports of several of these people who've had their skulls crushed, eyes grouched out, legs broken in a couple of places."

The report highlights cases of Kurdish activists who have suffered arrest, torture and unfair trial for promoting human rights.

Syria has a population of 18 million people. There are about 2 million Kurds among them.

Amnesty International says Kurds, who constitute Syria's second largest ethnic group, suffer from it describes as "identity-based discrimination."

About 250,000 of the Kurds are denied Syrian citizenship. They lack basic rights.

The organization is calling on Syria to end prohibitions on the use and practice of the Kurdish language and culture. Neil Sammonds. "We need to see some attempt by the authorities," Sammonds said, "to look at the discrimination against the Kurds in terms of their social and economic rights, such as equal access to education and the use of their language in schools -- and even for perhaps 300,000 of the Kurds who are seen as stateless in the eyes of the authorities, these [people] are unable to get full access to hospitals or to have education beyond the age of about 14."

There has been no official reaction by Syrian authorities to Amnesty International report.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.