Syrian dissidents meet, raise call for democracy

Syrian authorities invited the opposition to a July 10 meeting to discuss changes to constitution.

Damascus: Syrian dissidents on Monday called for democracy and a peaceful end to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in a meeting that drew over 100 participants including former political prisoners.

Syrian authorities meanwhile invited the opposition to a July 10 meeting to discuss key changes to the constitution and the wave of unrest that has pitted protesters against security forces since mid-March.

The opposition figures, all of them independent of any party affiliation, gathered in a hotel in Damascus to discuss a way out of crisis in a public meeting they said was unprecedented in five decades of iron-fisted Baath rule.

"There are two ways forward -- the first a clear and non-negotiable move to a peaceful transition to democracy which would rescue our country and our people," opposition activist Munzer Khaddam told the meeting.

"The alternative is a road that leads into the unknown and which will destroy everyone," he said.

"We are with the people and we, like them, have chosen the first path. Those who refuse to take it will go to hell."

Anwar Bunni, a prominent human rights lawyer who has served five years behind bars, said it was the "first meeting of its kind at a public venue announced in advance."

Louai Hussein, an opposition writer and leading activist, said the participants sought a "peaceful transition" and called for "the creation of a democratic state based on citizenship and human rights."

"The tyrannical regime in power must go," said Hussein, who spent 1984 to 1991 behind bars for his involvement in the country`s banned communist party.

"We are here to speak openly and freely... the political system may fall and we must work from now to prevent society from crumbling," he added.

Michel Kilo, a former political prisoner and leading democracy activist, warned the authorities` "security solution" could lead to the country`s "destruction".

"Society must shape power and not the other way around," he said, calling for the whole structure of the regime to be uprooted.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 1,342 civilians have been killed in the government`s crackdown and that 342 security force personnel have also died.

The president of the Syrian League for Human Rights, Abdel Karim Rihawi, said the meeting was not intended to replace "protesters in the street."

"We will talk so that we can formulate a national strategy on how to end Syria`s current crisis," he said.

Authorities meanwhile invited the opposition for July 10 talks, SANA state news agency said.

The meeting would open a debate on the constitution, "especially clause 8," which stipulates the ruling Baath party is the leader of both the Syrian state and society, the report added.

The removal of clause 8 has been a central demand of opposition activists.

Lawyer Bunni said that Assad`s opponents would join his proposed "national dialogue" only if peaceful demonstrations were authorised, political prisoners freed, the opposition recognised and the use of force ended.

Some of the dissidents who gathered in Damascus distanced themselves from opposition activists who met in the Turkish resort of Antalya this month and who included members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular politicians.

"We have no links with the opposition activists abroad -- we too question their real objectives," said writer Nabil Saleh.

Assad meanwhile discussed the "legitimate demands of his people, current events and the implementation of reforms," during a meeting with visiting US congressman Dennis Kucinich, official media said.

Syria`s security forces this week have pressed their deadly sweep for dissidents towards Syria`s borders sending about 11,000 refugees fleeing into Turkey and hundreds more across to Lebanon.

Meanwhile some 300 students detained last week after a rare protest in Syria`s second city Aleppo have been charged with "sabotage" and "insulting the president," said an activist.

"It is a new sign that the authorities are set on deepening the crisis rather than finding political solutions," said Radif Mustafa, chairman of the Kurdish Human Rights Committee.

Pro-government daily Al-Watan said on Sunday the border areas near Turkey being targeted by the military had been used as a "key crossing for armed groups".

But foreign governments have refused to accept the contention the protests are the work of armed gangs supported from abroad. "We`re just not buying it," US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said last week.

Bureau Report