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map courtesy CIA World Factbook; click for enlargement Constitution, Government & Legislation

Despite the existence of some institutions of democratic government in Syria, the political system places virtually absolute authority in the hands of the President. Former President Hafiz Al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Al-Asad's death, the Parliament amended the Constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 years old, which allowed his son Bashar Al-Asad legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'th party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar was elected by referendum in which he ran unopposed and received 97.29 percent of the vote. Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, internal politics, and the economy are made by the President, with counsel from his ministers, high-ranking members of the ruling Ba'th Party, and a relatively small circle of security advisers. Although the Parliament is elected every 4 years, the Ba'th Party is ensured a majority. The Parliament may not initiate laws but only assesses and at times modifies those proposed by the executive branch. In general all three branches of government are influenced to varying degrees by leaders of the Ba'th Party.

The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party with leadership functions in the state and society and provides broad powers to the president. The president, approved by referendum for a 7-year term, also is secretary general of the Ba'ath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. The president has the right to appoint ministers, to declare war and states of emergency, to issue laws (which, except in the case of emergency, require ratification by the People's Council), to declare amnesty, to amend the constitution, and to appoint civil servants and military personnel.

Along with the National Progressive Front, the president decides issues of war and peace and approves the state's 5-year economic plans. The National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic policies are debated and the country's political orientation is determined. However, because of Ba'ath Party dominance, the National Progressive Front has traditionally exercised little independent power.

The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the president be Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. Islamic jurisprudence, however, is required to be the main source of legislation.

Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces, one of which is Damascus. Each province is headed by a governor, whose appointment is proposed by the minister of the interior, approved by the cabinet and announced by executive decree. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Courts & Judgments

The Syrian judicial system is composed of the civil and criminal courts, military courts, security courts, and religious courts, which adjudicate matters of personal status such as divorce and inheritance (see Section 5). The Court of Cassation is the highest court of appeal. The Supreme Constitutional Court is empowered to rule on the constitutionality of laws and decrees; it does not hear appeals.

Civil and criminal courts are organized under the Ministry of Justice. Defendants before these courts are entitled to the legal representation of their choice; the courts appoint lawyers for indigents. Defendants are presumed innocent; they are allowed to present evidence and to confront their accusers. Trials are public, except for those involving juveniles or sex offenses. Defendants may appeal their verdicts to a provincial appeals court and ultimately to the Court of Cassation. Such appeals are difficult to win because the courts do not provide verbatim transcripts of cases--only summaries prepared by the presiding judges. There are no juries.

Military courts have the authority to try civilians as well as military personnel. The venue for a civilian defendant is decided by a military prosecutor. There were continuing reports that the Government operates military field courts in locations outside established courtrooms. Such courts reportedly observe fewer of the formal procedures of regular military courts.

The two security courts are the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), which tries political and national security cases, and the Economic Security Court (ESC), which tries cases involving financial crimes. Both courts operate under the state of emergency, not ordinary law, and do not observe constitutional provisions safeguarding defendants' rights.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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Human Rights

The Syrian human rights situation remained poor in 2001, and the Government continues to restrict or deny fundamental rights, although there were improvements in a few areas. The Ba'th Party dominates the political system, as provided for by the Constitution, and citizens do not have the right to change their government. The Government uses its vast powers so effectively that there is no organized political opposition, and there have been very few antigovernment manifestations. Although the Government released prominent political prisoner Nizar Nayyuf in May after 10 years in prison, it immediately placed him under house arrest. The Government subsequently allowed him to travel overseas for medical treatment but issued an arrest warrant against him in September while he was still abroad. Beginning in August, the Government also arrested 10 prominent human rights leaders, including two independent Members of Parliament and former longtime political prisoner Riad al-Turk. The Jordanian press reported in January the release from Syrian jail of six Jordanian prisoners of Palestinian origin, who had been imprisoned for membership in Palestinian organizations. Continuing serious abuses include the use of torture in detention; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged detention without trial; fundamentally unfair trials in the security courts; an inefficient judiciary that suffers from corruption and, at times, political influence; and infringement on privacy rights.

The Government also significantly restricts freedom of speech and of the press. Although new amendments to the Press Law permitted government-approved private individuals and organizations to publish their own newspapers, the same amendments also stipulated imprisonment and stiff financial penalties as part of broad, vague provisions prohibiting the publication of "inaccurate" information. Freedom of assembly does not exist under the law and the Government restricts freedom of association. The Government does not officially allow independent domestic human rights groups to exist; however, it allowed periodic meetings of unlicensed civil society forums throughout the year. The Government places some limits on freedom of religion and limits freedom of movement. Violence and societal discrimination against women are problems. The Government discriminates against the stateless Kurdish minority, suppresses worker rights, and tolerates child labor in some instances.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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