A report by the U.S.-based rights watchdog urged Syria on Tuesday to abolish its security court which tried thousands of people considered enemies of the state and who cannot appeal the court's verdicts.
Human Rights Watch called on the EU and U.S. to press Syria to scrap the court as a condition for improving ties with Damascus.
HRW said that security forces detained defendants for long periods of time before informing them of the charges against them and that defense lawyers often do not see their clients until the day of the trial.
Syria's 'Kangaroo court'
Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) exists outside the ordinary criminal justice system and is accountable only to the Interior Minister "who acts as the delegated martial law governor."
The SSSC has prosecuted at least 153 defendants since January 2007 "on the basis of vague charges that criminalize freedom of expression", HRW said in its report titled "Far from Justice: Syria's Supreme State Security Court."
The largest category of defendants in the last three years includes
"Islamists", HRW said, their main "crime" appearing to be that they possess CDs or books by fundamentalist clerics.
The report said that defendants have no chance of "proving their innocence against the bogus charges brought against them", cannot appeal their verdict to a higher tribunal and that most trials consist of "four short sessions.
Defendants have also alleged that they have been tortured to extract confessions, charges the SSSC has not investigated, HRW said. Defendants have no right to appeal against verdicts.
"The State Security Court is one of Syria's main pillars of repression, a kangaroo court providing judicial cover for the persecution of activists, and even ordinary citizens, by Syria's security agencies," said HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.
The report said the court has relied on "sham trials to prosecute 153 defendants since January 2007 on the basis of vague charges."
"Defendants have no chance of defending themselves, much less proving their innocence against the bogus charges brought against them."
Among them were bloggers, Kurdish activists and eight people "accused of insulting the Syrian president in private conversations," it said.
No private conversations
One 67-year-old man was sentenced in 2007 to three years in jail "because the security services overheard him insulting the Syrian president and criticizing corruption" at a Damascus cafe, it said.
Another was prosecuted "after informants said he had insulted President Bashar al-Assad while watching television at his uncle's home," it said.
"As a measure of how repressive Syria's security forces are, it appears that ordinary Syrians who aren't engaged in any political activity cannot have a private conversation exchanging opinions about their government, in a restaurant, or even in their own homes," said Whitson.
HRW said it spoke to former defendants, lawyers and human rights activists in Syria and based its report on "trial notes taken by Western diplomats who are the only outside observers to have access to the courts."