By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – Syria has freed more than 400 civil servants, judges, lawyers and journalists detained this year in a crackdown on social media dissent, a move seen by rights activists and former detainees as intended to win over public opinion ahead of presidential elections.
Those released after being held under Syria’s cyber crimes law were among thousands freed this month under a general amnesty for currency speculators, drug dealers, smugglers and kidnappers ahead of the May 26 election that is expected to hand President Bashar al Assad a fourth term.
Most of the freed social media critics were supporters of Syrian authorities’ handling of the uprising in 2011 that spiralled into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands.
The amnesty excluded tens of thousands of Assad opponents and political detainees held for years without trial, many of whom are believed dead, rights groups say.
“The auspicious timing of the release right before elections of a moderate loyalist camp … is to generate a facade of entertaining some form of dissent to further make elections look credible,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
The group had seen an uptick in arrests for online activities in recent months to silence public disaffection over Syria’s economic crisis.
Its economy is collapsing under the weight of war, sanctions and COVID-19, but public criticism of deteriorating living conditions is not tolerated.
The crackdown under cyber crime law on mostly Assad supporters was intended to instil fear ahead of elections, according to two released detainees, who requested anonymity.
None of those arrested had criticised Assad, a capital offence, and most were rounded up by security forces for online posts ranging from a “like” on a Facebook comment lamenting growing hardship and critical of the government to remarks decrying state corruption.
Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment on the releases but the head of the journalists’ union, Musa Abdul Noor, had earlier confirmed that journalists had been held for social media comments on their personal accounts but not under another law that technically bans the arrest of journalists.
At least 60 of those released are well-known in their local communities, including senior police officers, judges and a senior customs inspector, state employed journalists, lawyers, university students, businessmen and women’s rights advocates, four detainees said.
The releases were among steps taken in recent weeks ahead of the elections to influence public opinion, such as efforts to fight sky-rocketing inflation, and extending government grants to state employees in areas suffering from economic hardship.
The interior ministry had in January warned that violators of the cyber-crimes law, which criminalises social media comments deemed to undermine the authority of the state, would face a minimum of six months in prison.
The ministry said it would pursue people who leaked fake news to portals that “distort and sow confusion in public opinion”.
Family members said Hala Jerf, a leading presenter on state television, Firyal Jahjah, a senior civil servant who serves as the head of a government inspection agency, and a prominent local journalist in Latakia province, Kenan Wakkaf, were among those released.
“I will stay with you, the voice that believes truth is the highest value. To corruption, I say you think you have shaken my resolve or maybe frightened me? You have not even scared my boots,” Wakkaf said in a post after he arrived home.
The majority of those released were not formally charged or put on trial, according to two released detainees who requested anonymity because they were warned not to speak publicly.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Maha El Dahan and Giles Elgood)