Syria: Opposition Figure Granted Bail, French MPs Meet Assad

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A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on February 25, 2015 shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, center left, meeting with French socialist senator, Jean-Pierre Vial, center right, along with three other French parliamentarians, in Damascus, for the first since the severance of diplomatic relations was decided jointly by France, Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain in May 2012. AFP/HO/SANA

Published Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Syrian court on Wednesday granted bail to prominent opposition figure Louay Hussein, his lawyer said, more than three months after the veteran dissident was detained.

Meanwhile, four French lawmakers met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Wednesday during a private trip to the war-torn country. This news came after Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called for sanctions and an arms embargo to be imposed on Syria to punish the regime for its continued use of devastating barrel bombs.

Hussein, head of the Building the Syrian State party, "will be tried as a free man on the charges brought against him," human rights lawyer Michel Shammas told AFP.

Hussein, a prominent opposition leader, was arrested by the Syrian government in late 2014 after publishing an article in which he criticized the regime and warned that the Syrian state was faltering badly.

He was detained at the border with Lebanon in November and accused of "weakening national sentiments," a punishable crime.

This is Hussein’s third time in jail for political reasons. His first arrest was when he was a university student, when he was stripped of his civil rights and spent seven years in prison between 1984 and 1991. His second arrest was following the March 2011 protests against the Assad government. He was among the first in line to speak out in support of the uprising.

Four French lawmakers meet Assad

Meanwhile, four French parliamentarians met with Assad on Wednesday, despite a breakdown in diplomatic ties between Paris and Damascus

"We met Bashar al-Assad for a good hour. It went very well," Jacques Myard, an MP from the conservative opposition Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP), told AFP in a telephone interview. However he refused to reveal the content of the talks.

The French government, which supports the so-called moderate Syrian opposition and wants Assad to leave power, quickly denied that the lawmakers were there in an official capacity.

Government spokesman Stephane Le Foll stressed that it was "in no way an official French initiative" and the foreign ministry said earlier that the lawmakers did not carry any "official message."

Myard said the trip was "a personal mission to see what is going on, to hear, listen."

The four MPs and senators, who hail from both the left and the right, belong to the France-Syria parliamentary friendship groups. One of the MPs is a member of President Francois Hollande's ruling Socialist Party (PS).

A Syrian government source said the lawmakers were also due to meet Foreign Minister Walid Moallem on Wednesday.

Paris supports the “moderate” Syrian opposition both politically and militarily, and wants to try and resolve the crisis through negotiations between members of this opposition and the Syrian regime — but without Assad.

Syria's conflict evolved from mass demonstrations against Assad's regime to a war that has left more than 210,000 dead, and close to 12 million Syrians displaced including 3.8 million who have fled to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Human Rights Watch call for arms embargo on Syrian government

Human Rights Watch called Tuesday for an arms embargo, claiming it would limit the Syrian regime's ability to carry out air attacks and deny it the possibility to purchase new helicopters or service its existing fleet.

Thousands of civilians have been killed or injured by barrel bombs, a crude weapon made from large oil drums, gas cylinders and water tanks, packed with explosives and scrap metal and then dropped from helicopters, the US-based rights organization said.

Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified at least 450 damage sites in 10 towns and villages in the southern Daraa governorate and over 1,000 in the northern city of Aleppo over the past year, which suggest widespread use of barrel bombs.

The rights group also examined dozens of videos uploaded on Youtube showing impact sites and Syrian Mi-17 helicopters dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas.

Barrel bomb attacks have "made entire towns, entire neighborhoods unlivable and (are) a key cause of the displacement crisis," said Nadim Houry, the Middle East deputy director for Human Rights Watch.

"These attacks have continued in a climate of international indifference while all eyes have shifted on ISIS," the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group that now controls large parts of Syria, Houry told a news conference at UN headquarters.

A year ago, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Assad to end barrel bombing and other indiscriminate attacks.

The call for a tougher stance came as the United Nations is seeking to win Assad's support for a plan to suspend its air raids for six weeks in Aleppo to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians.

Russia and China vetoed a resolution last year that would have allowed the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria.

In a BBC interview this month, Assad denied that his forces were using barrel bombs, describing such claims as a "childish story."

Human Rights Watch interviewed six doctors providing treatment to Syrian civilians in Jordan who said women and children make up two-thirds of the victims of attacks in late 2014.

In both Aleppo and Daraa, barrel bombs have hit residential areas including schools, mosques and markets as well as hospitals.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council in a report last week to take action to halt the use of barrel bombs in Syria as a matter of priority.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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