AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian authorities' arrest of a leftist opposition figure overnight suggests that a bill passed by the government to end emergency rule after 48 years will not halt repression, rights campaigners said Wednesday.
The draft law was passed Tuesday as a concession by President Bashar al-Assad in the face of increasingly determined mass protests against his authoritarian rule. More than 200 people have been killed, rights groups say.
The end of emergency rule was, however, coupled with new legislation requiring Syrians to obtain a permit from the state if they want to hold demonstrations. Defiant protests continued regardless and sit-ins were held in several areas overnight.
Rights advocate Wissam Tarif said a protest was held in the Zabadani suburb of Damascus late Tuesday. A Youtube video showed protesters chanting "the people want the overthrow of the regime," the rallying cry of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
A prominent leftist in the city, Mahmoud Issa, was taken from his house around midnight by members of Syria's feared political security division.
Rights campaigners said at least 20 pro-democracy protesters had been shot dead by security forces in the city of Homs in the past two days.
"Issa is a prominent former political prisoner. Arresting him hours after announcing a bill to lift emergency law is reprehensible," said Rami Adelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, speaking from Britain.
"Lifting emergency law is long overdue, but there are a host of other laws that should be scrapped, such as those giving security forces immunity from prosecution, and giving powers to military courts to try civilians."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the new law requiring permits to hold demonstrations made it unclear if the end of emergency rule would make for a less restrictive regime.
"This new legislation may prove as restrictive as the emergency law it replaced," he said, adding that the Syrian government "needs to urgently implement broader reforms."
"THERE MUST BE NO MORE SLAUGHTER"
Prominent civic figures in Homs, a central city known for its intellectuals and artists, signed a declaration calling on the army "not to spill the blood of honourable Syrians" and denying official allegations that Salafist groups were operating there.
In a sign of resistance to protesters' demands for reforms, the Interior Ministry Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by "armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations" trying to terrorise the population.
Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam that many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al Qaeda. Assad and most of his inner circle are from Syria's minority Alawite community, who adhere to an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
"Not Salafist, not Muslim Brotherhood. We are freedom seekers!" hundreds of people chanted in Tuesday's demonstration in Banias on the Mediterranean coast.
Analysts said authorities would be keen to prevent protesters gaining a visible focal point like Egypt's Tahrir square. Security forces forcibly cleared out a gathering in Homs at the weekend, killing 17 people, activists said, and another three were shot dead early Tuesday.
"The concessions now being made by the government have been achieved at a very heavy cost in human lives," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"There must be no more slaughter. Syria's president must take firm action now to stop the bloody crackdown by his security forces and ensure that those responsible for it are held to account."
Emergency rule, in place since the Baath Party seized power in a 1963 coup, gave security organs blanket power to stifle dissent through a ban on gatherings of over five people, arbitrary arrest and closed trials, lawyers say.
Syria is involved in several Middle East conflicts. Any change at the top -- Assad, backed by his family and the security apparatus, is Syria's absolute ruler -- would ripple across the Arab world and affect Syria's ally Iran.
The leadership backs the Islamist movement Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah but seeks peace with Israel. Assad was largely rehabilitated in the West after years in isolation after the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.