Syria arrests two Kurdish leaders


Reuters correspondent, Khaled Yacoub Oweis, reports:

DAMASCUS, Aug 31 (Reuters) – Syrian authorities have arrested two Kurdish leaders and charged one with a capital offence, as part of a campaign to crush political dissidents that has triggered international protests.

The two men were arrested ahead of a visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the Syrian capital on Wednesday.

Sarkozy has been trying to convince President Bashar al-Assad to release leading political prisoners who have been campaigning for minority rights and a democratic constitution as an alternative to four decades of Baath Party rule.

Talal Mohammad of the banned Wifaq party, an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is also active in Turkey and Iraq, was arrested without warrant in northeastern Syria last week and not heard from since, according to the National Organisation of Human Rights in Syria.

Authorities earlier arrested Mashaal Tammo, an official in Future Movement, which like all opposition parties in Syria is banned.

Future Movement advocates democracy and equal rights for Syria’s one million Kurdish minority. The Kurdish language is not allowed to be taught in schools and tens of thousands of Kurds were denied citizenship after a 1960s census.

Tammo had said before his arrest that Syrian policy toward the Kurds risked a repeat of riots that killed 30 people in Syria in 2004. The riots started in a Kurdish region.

Tammo was charged on Aug. 27 with committing aggression and arming Syrians to start civil war, an accusation that carries the death penalty and is rarely directed against well-known political activists.

Other charges regularly used against dissidents were also levelled at Tammo, including belonging to an organisation that aims to change the basis of society and causing racial and sectarian tension.


Tammo has denied the charges and human rights lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani said it would require a great deal of evidence to prove that Tammo, who renounces violence, had wanted to start civil war.

“The authorities cannot resort to such fearsome charges just because they disagree with someone’s opinions,” he said.

The U.S. State Department denounced Tammo’s arrest, saying he was held incommunicado for 15 days before he was charged.

“We condemn the detention of Tammo and other Syrian prisoners of conscience and call for their immediate release,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a statement.

“We encourage the international community to join us in calling on the Syrian government to stop its policy of arresting critics of the regime and to comply with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Syria, which has been controlled by the Baath Party since it took power in a 1963 coup and imposed emergency law, has thousands of political prisoners, human rights lawyers say.

Assad said during a visit to Paris last month authorities only arrest those suspected of violating the constitution and that criticism of his rule was permitted.

Under Turkish pressure, Syria has cracked down on the PKK, which it once backed.

A security court handed several PKK members long sentences in 2006 in trials branded illegitimate by international human rights groups.

“What is this? You armed us and now you imprison us,” one defendant shouted at the judges before he was sentenced to seven years in jail. (Editing by Mary Gabriel)