Monday, October 24, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria — A brutal beating delivered last week to Anwar al Bounni, one of the few lawyers who dares to represent political prisoners before Syria’s security court, indicates that after a brief “Damascus Spring,” the administration of President Bashar Assad is cracking down on dissent.

Mr. al Bounni, a slight, quick-to-smile human rights lawyer from Damascus, was driving through the capital when his car was cut off by another vehicle. Several men jumped out, pulled Mr. al Bounni from his car and beat him around the head, leaving him dazed and badly bruised.

His treatment was a sign that, for all the hopes of a more relaxed regime when President Hafez Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his second son, Bashar, Syria has returned to the bad old days.

A U.N. report last week accused the Syrian administration of complicity in the Feb. 14 bombing deaths of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 20 others in Beirut.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who are traveling together in Alabama, both called yesterday for international action in response to the report.

“These are very serious charges and they have to be debated at the level of foreign minister,” Miss Rice said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview.

Mr. Straw said the report indicated that “people of a high level of this Syrian regime were implicated” in the assassination. He also referred to “false testimony being given by senior people” in the Syrian government.

The U.N. report, released late Thursday, said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid Moualem lied to investigators when he described a Feb. 1 meeting with Mr. Hariri as “friendly and constructive.”

The U.N. investigation, led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, cited an audiotape of the conversation in which Mr. Moualem told Mr. Hariri: “We and the [security] services here have put you into a corner. … Please do not take things lightly.”

Mr. Moualem insisted on his innocence in a Syrian state television interview, saying, “I did not go to Prime Minister Hariri to make threats. I went to tell him about my mission and ask him to cooperate in order for the mission to succeed.”

Mr. al Bounni, who is recovering at his brother’s house, said he could not prove that the regime was behind his beating, but he was sure it was meant as a warning.

“I’ve been defending political prisoners since 1992,” he said in an interview just 24 hours before he was attacked. “It is dangerous, but nothing will change here without a price. If the international community takes its eyes off Syria, the regime will kill the opposition in the streets.”

Mr. al Bounni’s beating was the second “message” he has received this month. He had just emerged from hiding after what he described as a crude “sting” operation designed to discredit him.

Earlier this month, he said, a woman threw herself at him as he left court “and said I had assaulted her. Suddenly the police and ambulances emerged from out of nowhere. The regime wanted to make a criminal out of me, so I went into hiding.”

The campaign of intimidation and beating is a sign that the short-lived “Damascus Spring” — when Syria’s press and opposition enjoyed new freedom after Hafez Assad died — is over.

“There’s a real sense of disappointment with Bashar that the shell opened up briefly, and then snapped shut again,” said one diplomat in the Syrian capital.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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