Syria frees inmates, vows probe into boy`s death

Government formed a committee for Syrians to discuss their political future.

Beirut: The Syrian government freed hundreds of political prisoners on Wednesday and promised to investigate the death of a 13-year-old boy whose apparent torture and mutilation turned him into a symbol of the uprising calling for an end to President Basher Assad`s regime.

In its latest attempt to blunt the 10-week revolt, the government also formed a committee to lay the groundwork for Syrians to discuss their political future.

Wednesday`s concessions would have been unimaginable only months ago, but protesters had already rejected the amnesty as too little, too late. And the government announcements were coupled with a crackdown on two towns in Syria`s center and south that killed at least 33 people, including an 11-year-old girl shot dead by troops during a fierce shelling, activists said.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told The Associated Press that more than 500 prisoners were freed, including some who took part in the latest demonstrations marking the most serious challenge to the Assad family`s 40-year rule.

Children have become a flashpoint issue in the uprising against the Syrian regime after video emerged of the mutilated and apparently tortured remains of the 13-year-old boy. To stem growing criticism, the government said Wednesday it had ordered an investigation into the death of Hamza al-Khatib, whose photo from happier times has become an emotional touchstone — and a Facebook profile photo — for many protesters.

Images of the child`s body with what appeared to be marks of torture and gunshots were shown on YouTube and Al-Jazeera TV. Al-Jazeera did not air the whole video, but a copy posted by opposition on YouTube showed that the boy`s penis was severed and his neck broken. The body, lying on a plastic sheet, appeared pink and the eyes were mottled with bruises and black marks.

Opposition groups blamed security forces for the boy`s death.

State-TV aired an interview late Tuesday with Dr. Akram Shaar, who examined al-Khatib`s body. He said the cause of death was shooting, and three bullets had hit the boy`s body. He added that what appeared to be bruises and signs of torture were the result of natural decomposition since the boy died on April 29. His body was handed over to his family on May 21, state TV said.

The station also aired a recorded interview with al-Khatib`s father who said he was received by Assad this week. The father added that the president considers "Hamza as his son and was touched" by the death.

But the 11-year-old girl`s killing, late Tuesday, seemed certain to inflame tensions. Rights groups say the dead since the uprising began include at least 25 children.

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which helps organize and document the country`s protests, said 25 people were shot dead on Tuesday in the central town of Rastan, which has seen a major military clampdown in recent days.

In the south, Syrian troops shelled the town of Hirak with tanks and artillery, killing at least eight people on Tuesday and Wednesday, including 11-year-old Malak Munir al-Qaddah, human rights activist Mustafa Osso said. Osso said scores of people were detained after government forces regained control of Hirak.

The government claims the revolt is the work of Islamic extremists and armed gangs.

Osso said earlier in the day prisoners to be freed would include Muslim Brotherhood members, as well as members of the Kurdistan Workers` Party, or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy from Turkey since 1984.

Syrian state television on Tuesday said the amnesty covered "all members of political movements," including the Muslim Brotherhood, which led an armed uprising against Assad`s father in 1982. Membership in the party is punishable by death.

The amnesty could affect some 10,000 people who Syrian activists say have been rounded up since the protests against the Assad regime broke out in mid-March.

Also Wednesday, state-run news agency, SANA, said Assad issued a presidential decree forming a committee whose job will be to prepare for a national dialogue. It added that Assad told committee members the dialogue was needed to overcome "political and social instability."

Assad said the national dialogue committee should set the stage for all sides in Syria to express their views on politics, economics and society in "what expands participation."

Human Rights Watch said that the systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces in Daraa since protests began strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity.

In a report focusing on violations in Daraa province, the New York-based rights group called for UN Security Council sanctions. It said 418 people have been killed in the Daraa province alone since the uprising began.

"For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "They need to stop — and if they don`t, it is the Security Council`s responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice."

Bureau Report

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