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The government of Syria has launched a new crackdown on dissent. Thirty to 40 political and human rights activists have been arrested in the past few weeks. Western human rights organizations have raised the alarm, criticizing the Syrian government for a series of harsh prison sentences handed down by the country's top-secret security courts.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS: For most Syrians, the new round of repression is hidden. The state-controlled media makes no mention of a crackdown. The capital's coffeehouses are lively and life goes on.
But in recent weeks, government agents have arrested student activists and Islamists, detained political opposition figures, and violently broken up demonstrations according to Syrian human rights activists.
Rime Allaf, a Middle East analyst with Chatham House, a London-based think tank, is in the Syrian capital.
RIME ALLAF: Very suddenly we heard about a couple of arrests, we heard that their children were being taken to custody. Should they speak some more, they would be bearing the very heavy consequences.
AMOS: Riyad Sayf is one example. In January, he was released from prison after completing a four-year sentence for his political activity. Many consider him a charismatic leader who could unite the opposition. In an interview in February, he talked about his plans to challenge the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
RIYAD SAYF: Democracy is the only way to go out of this mess in Syria. And of course, the regime might be cruel with us.
AMOS: And it was for a second time. Arrested a few weeks ago, and held for a few hours, he was repeatedly summoned for questioning by the security police. His family says he no longer gives interviews.
Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi says there are new unwritten rules in Syria. No opposition figure can have contact with groups outside the country, or travel to conferences sponsored by western governments. Political demonstrations or political organizing are no longer tolerated.
IBRAHIM HAMIDI: You don't transform your statements into action. You can say whatever you want, anyway, but you cannot do whatever you want.
AMOS: Even some members of Parliament think the crackdown is a step back to darker days.
Lawmaker Mohammed Habash is one of the few insiders willing to speak out.
MOHAMMED HABASH: This kind of arrested, it's very odd way.
Unidentified Woman: Do you think they should stop doing this then?
HABASH: Yes. I don't believe this is benefit for anyone.
AMOS: For the last few years, Syria seemed to be slowly leaving the old ways behind. Pressure for faster change came from the United States because of Syria's alleged support for the Iraqi insurgency. Then a United Nations investigation linked Syrian security figures to the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister.
The Syrian opposition thought it was time to step up and speak out. But analyst Rime Allaf says Syrian officials looked around the region and determined that the U.S. was too preoccupied to exert much pressure.
ALLAF: I believe the regime doesn't feel right now that it is in a position where it has to give in to some domestic demands when it's beginning to feel stronger internationally.
AMOS: But there are signs the Syrian leadership has some domestic concerns as an Islamic revival sweeps the country.
AMOS: This government office in Damascus is filled with flowers. Congratulations for Syria's new vice president, Najah al-Attar, the first female vice president in the Arab world.
In a business suit, her blonde hair styled, she is the symbol of secular Syria. She agrees that the Muslim brotherhood should remain a banned organization in Syria, even though her brother was its longtime leader. Sister and brother have not spoken in years.
Her appointment is seen by many as a warning to the brotherhood, a clear statement it will remain on the political outside. Attar knows her family connections are the talk of Damascus.
NAJAH AL: It hasn't anything to do with my appointment as a vice president. It has nothing to do.
AMOS: A clearer message, Syria's crackdown on political activists. Syrian analysts say the government will not tolerate dissent, not from Islamists, not from the secular opposition. Political reforms are not on the agenda.
Deborah Amos, NPR news.
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