By ABEER TAYEL
Al Arabiya with Agencies
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of the United States condemned the torture and killing of children by the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, even as Mr. Assad’s forces continued indiscriminate murder of pro-democracy protesters.
The reported torture of a 13-year-old Syrian boy demonstrates a “total collapse” of the Syrian government’s willingness to listen to its people, Mrs. Clinton said, according to Reuters.
“I can only hope that this child did not die in vain but that the Syrian government will end the brutality and begin a transition to real democracy,” said Secretary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton has long been an advocate of children’s rights and women’s empowerment.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the reports of the boy’s torture “horrifying” and “another case of the ongoing human rights abuses that we have seen carried out by Syrian forces,” Reuters reported.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also raised concerns about children who have been detained and tortured.
The New York Times reported on Monday that an online video showed a 13-year-old boy, arrested at a protest on April 29, who it said had been tortured, mutilated and killed before his body was returned to his family.
Syrian state media said that an inquiry would be carried out into the death of a 13-year-old boy allegedly tortured by Syrian security forces. Previous inquiries into the deaths of anti-regime demonstrators have yet to bear fruition.
Not done enough
Secretary Clinton also said that Mr. Assad had not done enough to alleviate deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Syria, despite many promises on his part.
“He has not called an end to the violence against his own people, and he has not engaged seriously in any kind of reform efforts,” Mrs. Clinton said.
“Every day that goes by, the position of the government becomes less tenable and the demands of the Syrian people for change only grow stronger,” she told reporters.
Meanwhile, a general amnesty for political prisoners decreed by President Assad has been dismissed by the opposition and Washington, as the crackdown on dissent claimed more lives, prompting Australia to call for the United Nations to consider referring the Syrian president to the International Criminal Court.
“President Assad has by decree issued an amnesty on all (political) crimes committed before May 31, 2011,” the official SANA news agency reported Tuesday.
The amnesty applies to all political prisoners as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Agence-France Presse.
Syrian opposition activists gathered in Turkey shrugged off Mr. Assad’s announcement, after two months of deadly anti-regime protests.
“This measure is insufficient: we demanded this amnesty several years ago, but it’s late in coming,” said Abdel Razak Eid, an activist from the Damascus Declaration, a reformist group launched in 2005 to demand democratic change.
“We are united under the slogan: the people want the fall of the regime and all those who have committed crimes brought to account. Blood will not have been spilled in vain,” he said.
The head of the Muslim Brotherhood delegation at the Antalya meeting, Melhem al-Durubi, said: “The Brotherhood joins with the Syrian people in calling for the fall of the regime.”
Turkey, which shares an 800-kilometer (500-mile) border with Syria, has become increasingly critical of President Assad as the bloody crackdown against demonstrators has continued.
Unlike the West, Ankara has not taken action against Mr. Assad, who removed restrictions on Turkish imports in the last three years, resulting in billions of dollars of Turkish goods flowing to Syria. The two countries have also cooperated on security.
A «step in the right direction»
Delegates in Antalya raised the green, white and black Syrian flag that pre-dated Baathist rule, Reuters reported. The Baath Party came to power in a 1963 coup, ushering in an era of repression during which tens of thousands of Syrians were killed, disappeared or were driven into exile around the world.
But Abdul Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian Human Rights League, welcomed the amnesty and urged the government to “take further steps to boost respect for human rights” in Syria.
And Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said any such measures were positive.
“If this includes prisoners of conscience and the Muslim Brotherhood, this measure is a step in the right direction,” he said.
The release of political prisoners has been a central demand of protesters in Syria, a country of 23 million people.
Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, they have since March 15 been staging almost daily demonstrations against President Assad’s autocratic government.
More than 1,100 civilians have been killed and at least 10,000 arrested in a brutal crackdown by the regime on the protests, rights organizations say.
And the UN children’s agency said Tuesday it had reports that 30 children had been shot dead during the clampdown.
Tuesday’s amnesty announcement by President Assad came soon after a senior official in Syria’s ruling Baath party reportedly said that a committee for national dialogue in the troubled country would be set up within 48 hours.
Al-Watan daily, which is close to the government, quoted party number two Mohammed Said Bkhetan as saying the committee’s members would be wide-ranging.
But the opposition has repeatedly insisted that dialogue can only take place once the violence ends, political prisoners are freed and reforms adopted.
The government insists the unrest is the work of “armed terrorist gangs” backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.
The authorities initially responded to the revolt by offering some concessions, including lifting the state of emergency in place for nearly five decades. But they also launched a fierce crackdown.
Crimes against humanity
European nations are pressing a campaign to get the UN Security Council to warn Damascus that its actions against demonstrators could constitute crimes against humanity.
Australia on Wednesday urged the United Nations to consider referring President Assad, 46, to the International Criminal Court, as it questioned the regime’s legitimacy.
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said he had extended sanctions against Mr. Assad’s inner circle to more individuals associated with the president, and would discuss possible further legal steps with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations.
“I believe it is high time that the Security Council now consider a formal referral of President Assad to the International Criminal Court,” Mr. Rudd told the National Press Club, according to Agence-France Presse.
“I am corresponding with the UN secretary general today and the president of the Security Council today on that matter,” Mr. Rudd said.
A rights activist told AFP Syrian security forces had shot dead three more civilians Tuesday in Rastan and Hirak, a town in the flashpoint southern province of Deraa.
Another activist earlier Tuesday reported machine-gun fire around Rastan, as military operations continued for a third straight day.
Residents of the town had attacked a police station and seized weapons near the place where a girl, identified as Hajar al-Khatib, and 10 other civilians were killed on Sunday, he said.
Foreign journalists are barred from travelling around Syria, making it difficult to report on the unrest and verify witness accounts.
Syria has come under increasing pressure internationally to end its crackdown and allow peaceful demonstrations.
United Nations rights chief Navi Pillay on Monday said the crackdown was shocking in its disregard for human rights. She has made similar comments many times before, but none of her words have seemed to impress President Assad.
(Abeer Tayel, an editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)