Syrian Authorities Crack Down on Democracy Group

In Syria, a group of activists called the Al Atasi Forum used to meet each month to discuss politics, among other issues. But officials have arrested the leaders and stopped the meetings.

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Authorities in Syria have ordered a democracy movement to stop its activities. They've also arrested members of its leadership, but the group known as the al-Atassi Forum continues to challenge the Syrian regime. Members of the forum clashed with Syrian security forces over the weekend. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In the courtyard of a Damascus apartment building, plastic chairs are stacked against a garden wall. This has been the meeting place for the al-Atassi Forum for democratic dialogue in Syria, a group of about 350 activists who met once a month to discuss Syria's political future. They were tolerated by the Syrian regime until last month. At the June meeting, the forum's political discussion included an e-mail message from the Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Islamist group. On June 25th, at 6 AM, Suhair al-Atassi, the forum's leader, says she was arrested by Syrian security forces and questioned for a week.

Ms. SUHAIR AL-ATASSI (al-Atassi Forum): (Through Translator) They came without any warrant, without any written document. They were carrying Kalashnikovs, and they didn't say why they were arresting me.

AMOS: What the security officials did say is the Atassi Forum must stop its activities, shut down the monthly meetings. But on Saturday, the group attempted to meet again. Atassi says 200 security police surrounded the neighborhood, arrested some of the forum members and broke up the meeting.

Ms. AL-ATASSI: (Through Translator) They were trying to disperse any gathering and they were not allowing any person to cross into my house.

AMOS: For the Syrian regime, the Muslim Brotherhood is a sensitive subject. Article 49 of the constitution outlaws the brotherhood. Membership even collaboration is punishable by death. Syrian security forces wiped out the militant wing in the 1980 in a bloody battle in the city of Hamah. But a moderate wing of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood is in exile in London. This group sent the e-mail, a message calling for democracy to solve Syria's problems. But the Syrian government was sending a message, too, says Rime Allaf with Chatham House, a London-based foreign policy research center.

Ms. RIME ALLAF (Chatham House): The government decided this is where we show that we're tough and this is where we show that there is a red line that nobody can cross. And they jumped on the opportunity to close the salon.

AMOS: Syria's political opposition, human rights activists, free speech groups and democracy advocates have had limited freedom to operate over the past few years. But they can be shut down or jailed at any time under an emergency law that's been in place for decades. Rime Allaf says the attack by the security services on the al-Atassi Forum was a warning to others.

Mr. ALLAF: The Syrian regime has spoken to all the opposition, has spoken to all the civil society activists and has tried to prove to everybody that it is in full control.

AMOS: Suhair al-Atassi and other members of the forum say they want to prove their resolve. They're one of the oldest opposition groups in Syria, founded by al-Atassi's father. And she says the group carried banners to the meeting on Saturday challenging the security police.

Ms. AL-ATASSI: (Through Translator) Both banners were calling for the national dialogue and for freedom of expression, but they tore them down.

AMOS: She says the forum will meet next month in August to challenge the security services again.

Ms. AL-ATASSI: (Through Translator) Yes, I would continue and this is the least I can do.

AMOS: And continue to bring together all of Syria's opposition groups, a movement that is still small and often divided with little popular support or influence on the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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