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Syrian Crackdown Intensifies: Over 150 Killed Since Friday as Assad Regime Attempts to Crush Protest Movement

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Syria has intensified its massive crackdown on demonstrators, despite the lifting of emergency rule last week that banned demonstrations. Al Jazeera reports thousands of troops backed with tanks have swept into the southern city of Daraa, where a curfew is in place, setting up snipers on rooftops and killing at least 20 people. Government security forces have also stormed the large Damascus suburb of Douma. These latest developments follow protests on Friday that ended with more than 100 people killed in the deadliest day since the uprising began. We go to Syria to speak to Rula Amin of Al Jazeera and Razan Zaitouneh, human rights lawyer and activist. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMar 28, 2011Will Syria Lift Decades-Old Emergency Law? Street Protests & Deadly Crackdown Force Assad Regime to Consider Political Changes
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Syria has intensified a massive crackdown despite the lifting of emergency rule last week that banned demonstrations. Al Jazeera reports thousands of troops backed with tanks have swept into the southern city of Daraa, where a curfew is in place, setting up snipers on rooftops, killing at least 20 people. Government security forces also stormed the large Damascus suburb of Douma early Monday. Earlier today, Syria closed its border with Jordan in response to what it called a “major security operation.”

These latest developments follow protests Friday that ended with more than a hundred people killed in the deadliest day since the uprising began. Rights groups say security forces have killed at least 350 civilians in five weeks of unrest, often shooting directly at crowds at mass funerals. A third of the victims were killed in the past three days as the scale and breadth of a popular revolt against President Bashar al-Assad mounts. Police have also raided the homes of activists.

Two parliament members and one government-appointed religious leader have resigned in protest. President Obama condemned the violence in the strongest terms. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman compared the situation in Syria to Libya.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN: Everything that Gaddafi did in Libya that brought us into the fight there, Assad is doing, particularly the slaughter of his own people. And, you know, the world leaders are making statements, but we’re not doing anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Lieberman was speaking on CNN.

Human Rights Watch said yesterday, quote, “After Friday’s carnage, it is no longer enough to condemn the violence. Faced with the Syrian authorities’ 'shoot to kill' strategy, the international community needs to impose sanctions on those ordering the shooting of protesters,” unquote.

The U.S. is reportedly readying sanctions against Syria officials overseeing the violent crackdown.

To discuss the situation in Syria, we go to Damascus, where we’re joined on the phone by Rula Amin, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English in the Middle East. She has been reporting from Damascus for the last several weeks.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rula. Can you just describe what happened this weekend?

RULA AMIN: Yes. This weekend we saw the government changing tactics, where we saw more use of deadly force. In the past few weeks, there were instances where the government chose — the government chose to keep its security forces away from the centers of town and let the protests continue without any friction; in other places, there was confrontation. On this weekend, there was — seems to be a clear decision: they were going to confront the protesters and bring these protests to an end. There was an immense use of deadly force. More than 120 people were killed only on Friday. And this kind of shook the protesters, because it came one day after the president had signed two decrees: one lifting a state of emergency law that had been in place in the country for almost 50 years, and one is to allow protest to take place. So people were shocked. How could they do those two very contradicting things?

AMY GOODMAN: What about communications? Have they been cut off, been made more difficult, Rula?

RULA AMIN: What? Excuse me?

AMY GOODMAN: Communications, have they been made more difficult?

RULA AMIN: Yes, communications, especially — yes, in Daraa and in Douma, both land lines and mobile networks have been down. Almost every contact that we have in both areas — and I have been to both places — we could not reach today. They were out of reach, and we could not get to them. People have been anticipating such a crackdown, but I think the level and the mass storming of these places were still a shock to many people, not only in those two places, but even in Damascus. We were talking to activists and opposition figures, and there is a state of shock, panic, outrage. People fear this just a start for a serious crackdown that’s going to go all over the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of soldiers moving in on the people, and have any defected?

RULA AMIN: We don’t know if any have defected. There were reports earlier this morning by one eyewitness that a few officers and soldiers did defect, but it’s very hard to verify. We are not there, and only very few people have been able to communicate with the outside world. It seems they have [inaudible] phones or have mobile phones on a Jordanian network, and that’s how they were able to describe the scene.

What we know is that there are — the army had been involved before, but it was not taking the front role in the confrontation. When we went to Douma, when we went to Daraa, we did see army patrols. They were manning the checkpoints at the entrances to these villages, and they were making sure that nobody got in or out. But inside, they did not deploy. They did not take a front role in confronting. And even in places like Latakia, like Homs, these were the places that saw a lot of loyal — gunmen who are loyal to the government actually shooting at people. And people there were calling on the army to come in and help them. In fact, many of the chants we heard from the protesters were “God, Syria and the army.” People were hoping that the deployment of the army would actually mean protection for them. That didn’t happen today, and that’s why people are very disappointed.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about you? You work for Al Jazeera. How are journalists getting around? Are any able to operate inside?

RULA AMIN: It’s very hard to operate inside. Now in Syria, you can come in as an Arab holding an Arab passport. You don’t need a visa to get in. But if you want to work as a journalist, you do need a visa. I came in very early on, from two days after the protests started in Daraa. And I came in without asking for a visa as a journalist, to be honest, and I stayed on, and I was reporting on the air. So, obviously they did see that I was here, and they acknowledged our presence, but we don’t have the proper accreditation. We have tried to bring more people in. We had a few people — camerapeople, more reporters — trying to come in through the airport; they were turned back when they knew they were journalists.

And it’s very hard to get access. It’s very hard to get to places. At the beginning, we were able to get to Douma, we were able to go to Daraa, we were able to get Sanamayn — that’s another village near Daraa. But now, last Friday, I tried to go to Douma. It was impossible. The army and the security had deployed at every entrance to the capital and even to these suburbs, because they — in their mind, they doubt. They had suspicions that the protesters were going to bring the protest into the heart of the capital. And to them, bringing the protest to Damascus is a red line. And the security deployment was very visible, very heavy, and almost terrifying, because people — the security was standing there in the middle of the road in the capital with guns, with sticks, and obviously they wanted to send a message to the people: don’t dare, don’t think of trying to protest inside the capital.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Razan Zaitouneh. She is a lawyer and human rights activist. She’s speaking to us in Damascus, Syria. She has been reporting on the recent protests for various online networks. Can you talk about, Rula — can you talk about, Razan, the — what exactly is happening in Damascus, where you are?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Where I am, actually, is quiet. You feel that people — there is not a lot of people in the street. Everybody is worried. Everybody is waiting. But inside the capital, where I am, there is nothing, no protest or something like this. But everybody is following the news and asking each other, “What’s going on? Are we going to make a protest? Are we going to be in Sham, to have our protest in Sham?” This is — everybody is asking each other these questions.

What is going on today, which started since yesterday from attacking Daraa and Jableh and Douma and other places like Muadamiya, is making people actually — it’s not exactly shock, but also people are very disappointed today, a mix of disappointing and anger. Maybe in the few last weeks, in spite of all this blood, all this killed people, there was still hope that Syrians are somehow close to their freedom, they are going on, that numbers of protesters are growing, their movement get more organized. I guess what is going on today aimed, in the first place, to break this feeling, to break this hope among people and to make them feel that they are not willing to make their own change anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Are people in Damascus not protesting because they’re afraid or because they’re simply not protesting?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: It’s complicated in Damascus. It’s different from street to street, actually. For example, we witnessed a huge protest on Friday, in the Great Friday, in Al-Midan, which I belong to, but I don’t live there. It was thousands of people. It’s one of the main parts of Damascus, Al-Midan. And there was a huge protest there. But inside, in the center of the city, it’s quite difficult. The exist of security is very, very tense.

Beside that, sometime you feel that the above of the — not the middle class, but the high class, don’t participate in such a protest. Usually in the center of Damascus, you can’t find — especially areas around where I am, people who are from the high class don’t participate. They care more about their economic protest, or something like this. So it’s a bit complicated. But that doesn’t mean Damascus didn’t witness protest now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you understand happened throughout — throughout Syria, if not in Damascus, if not in Aleppo, these major cities, but in places like Douma, in places throughout Syria, and what it means for the security forces to have opened fire?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: We should know that the countrysides of Damascus and suburbs is not only for people who belong to these areas. Many, many of people of Damascus, during last 10 years or 15 years, moved to these areas because the economic conditions was deteriorating, so they had to buy their homes in these rich areas inside Damascus and go to the suburbs. So that means it’s not only people from the suburbs who were participated in these areas. And as I said before, inside the cities, sometime the economic situation play a role. Sometime, the minorities, where — some areas which some minorities live in, usually minorities are the last who participate in such movements. So all of these factors play a role in this.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, what are the major protesters’ demands?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Now is to end the regime, after 400 killed people since the protests started, after thousands of arrested people, and actually after what happened today, after the crimes, which is still going on today in Daraa and other places. In Douma, they’re breaking into homes and arresting the whole families, the whole men, the father and the sons, everybody — dozens of every family, because, you know, especially in the families in the suburbs, all of the member of the family live in the same area. So, we got, for example, until now, 10 names of one family — cousins and brothers and so on. So, what is going on, what the authority and the regime has practiced against the people, I don’t think they will never ask for anything after that than ending this regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, speaking to us from Damascus, Syria. Razan, Talk about how the protests started in Daraa in the last weeks. Why did they begin?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: About more than 15 kids between 12 to 15 years old got arrested because they wrote on the wall of their schools that the people want to end the regime. Maybe they even didn’t realize the meaning. They were watching what’s going on in Tunisia and Egypt, where everybody, even in the street, you find very small kids were chanting, “The people want to end the regime.” We were hearing that for two months on TV all the time. So, the security arrested those children, and they disappeared. Their families did everything to get them back, to know their fate. They sent letters to the president, to every — to many officials, reached out to human rights organizations. Nothing was useful.

Finally, the protesters started from that point. And when the kids were released, it was more shock, because they were tortured awfully. You can’t imagine. We got some photos of those pictures, how they got tortured. That made people more anger. The arrest campaign after that, killing of people — you know, since the third time of the protests in Daraa, the authorities started killing people. So that made more people anger, more people insist to protest against the regime. And that’s how it started from Daraa. More blood in Daraa make another cities want to participate, to say, “Stop. Enough blood. They are our people.” And that’s how it grow and grow, until, in the last Friday, there was no one area or city didn’t participate in the protest.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, you’re a human rights lawyer. Human Rights Watch has said that “faced with the Syrian authorities’ 'shoot to kill' strategy, the international community needs to impose sanctions on those ordering the shooting of protesters.” Do you agree?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: I agree. There should be all kind of diplomatic and human rights pressure on the regime to stop its killing and violence against its people. What is going on is crimes, committed every day, not only by killing people, even the awful torture which is practiced against the detainees, which is — we have — daily, we have dozens of people who get arrested. When they’re released, you can’t recognize them from the torture on their bodies, some of them children, 14 and 15 years old. So, for sure, all these crimes should be — should be referred to court. We have no court in Syria. We have no law to trust to investigate or to put these criminals in front of the court, so the only way should be to go to international courts.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Razan, we have 30 seconds, then we’re moving on to Yemen, but I wanted to ask you about the condition of the protesters and why the funerals, in particular, are being targeted. The condition of those in hospital is what I wanted to ask about.

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Usually, funerals — thousands and thousands participate in these funerals, and after a few minutes it turns to a protest, with chanting also for freedom and against the regime. And that’s why the authority or the security shoots them. It’s not the only crimes. People from inside the hospitals, injured people, got kidnapped and arrested from inside hospitals. In other cases, people are not allowed to take the people who are injured in the street to hospitals, like what happened yesterday in Jableh. We were talking to people on the phone, and people got injured and shot on the street, and nobody was there to go to the street to take them to hospital, because there was continuing shooting against everybody moving in the street.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan, are you afraid to be speaking out right now?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Nobody is not afraid right now. We know what they’re doing, what they are doing for people who were — who get arrested. But it’s our choice. We choose to get our freedom. We are continue and going on, no matter what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, I want to thank you for being with us, lawyer, human rights activist in Damascus, Syria. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll go to Yemen, and then we’ll talk about the Guantánamo Files. WikiLeaks has released many. Stay with us.

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