BEIRUT (AP) — Tens of thousands of people chanting “Freedom!” held protests in several Syrian cities Friday, demanding far greater reforms than the limited concessions offered by President Bashar Assad over the past four weeks, witnesses said.
The largest protests were on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and in the southern city of Daraa, which has become the epicenter of the protest movement. Witnesses said there were up to 50,000 people outside the capital and 10,000 in Daraa.
There was no immediate sign of army and security services in Daraa — a stark change from previous weeks, when Syrian forces fired tear gas and live bullets at the protesters.
Protesters were shouting for an end to the decades-old emergency laws, which allow the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge. Lifting the state of emergency has been a key demand of the protesters.
In central Damascus, hundred of regime supporters marched near the historic Umayyad mosque, carrying pictures of Assad and chanting “Our souls, our blood we sacrifice for you Bashar.”
It was impossible to independently verify the witness accounts because Syria has placed tight restrictions on media coverage, preventing access to trouble spots and expelling journalists.
The monthlong protest movement in Syria has steadily gathered momentum as tens of thousands of people demand sweeping reforms in Assad’s authoritarian regime. More than 200 people have been killed during the government crackdown on protesters, according to Syria’s main pro-democracy group.
Last Friday was the deadliest day since protests began with 37 people killed, most of them in Daraa.
Videos posted online showed hundreds of protesters marching in the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, shouting “Azadi!” the Kurdish word for freedom. In Kisweh, a Damascus suburb, footage showed protesters shouting “the people want to topple the regime!” — a slogan used during the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia.
The footage could not be independently confirmed.
Human Rights Watch issued a report Friday saying Syrian security and intelligence agencies have detained and tortured hundreds of protesters during a month of demonstrations.
“There can be no real reforms in Syria while security forces abuse people with impunity,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “President Assad needs to rein in his security services and hold them to account for arbitrary arrests and torture.”
Syria’s government and its state-run media have sought to cast the unrest as a foreign conspiracy perpetrated by armed gangs targeting security forces and civilians. Reform activists, however, say their movement is peaceful.
Assad has tried to calm the protests with promises of reform, such as forming committees to look into replacing the emergency laws and freeing detainees. But the protesters say the gestures are not nearly enough.
Also Friday, a Syrian journalist told The Associated Press he was set free after 16-day detention during which he was whipped and beaten. The journalist said he was set free shortly before midnight Thursday.
The journalist, who asked that his name not be made public, said he saw some 200 detainees being freed from the detention center where he was held.
The unrest in Syria could have ripple effects across the region, given the country’s role as Iran’s top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.
The Obama administration said Thursday that Iran appears to be helping Syria crack down on protesters, calling it a troubling example of Iranian meddling in the region and an indication that Assad isn’t interested in real reform.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry denied the U.S. claims saying they are saying it is untrue.
“If the State Department has evidence why aren’t they made public,” an unnamed foreign ministry official was quoted by state-run news agency SANA as saying.
By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report.