Syria on Thursday granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Kurds on the same day that a legal committee completed draft legislation to replace nearly five decades of emergency rule.
State-run television said Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree granting citizenship to more than 250,000 Kurds registered as aliens in the Hasaka province records. In a separate decree, Assad sacked the governor of central Homs province that has been the scene of clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in the past three weeks.
The overtures are part of a series of concessions by the regime, designed to subdue the protests that erupted in a southern city on March 18 and spread to other parts of Syria. The decrees come on the eve of more protests planned by Syrian activists, who on social networking sites have called for nationwide demonstrations Friday.
A Facebook group also called for a "peaceful sit-in until freedom" at the Damascus headquarters of the Baath party to coincide with its 64th anniversary and urged countrywide "resistance on Friday to demonstrate despite our wounds."
Kurds, who are a majority in the northeast and who have been denied nationality for nearly half a century, the state news agency SANA reported.
"President Assad issued a decree granting Arab Syrian citizenship to people registered as foreigners in the (governorate of Hassake)," it said.
The measure, which would benefit some 300,000 Kurds, came a week after Assad tasked a committee with "resolving the problem of the 1962 census in the governorate of Hassake."
In 1962, 20 percent Syria’s ethnic Kurdish population were deprived of citizenship after the controversial census, according to human rights groups.
The government at the time argued its decision was based on a 1945 wave of illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hassake, where they "fraudulently" registered as Syrian citizens.
The issue has long poisoned relations between the government and Syria’s Kurds, who were banned from public sector jobs because they are not citizens and yet they cannot emigrate as they do not have Syrian passports.
Kurds in the northeast demonstrated last Friday for the first time since pro-reform protests erupted in mid-March, calling for the right to citizenship and "freedom as well," Kurdish rights activist Radif Mustafa told AFP.
Also on Thursday, "jurists finished drafting new legislation to replace emergency law and presented their text to the regional leadership of the Baath party," a politician close to the regime told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The lifting of emergency powers, in force since 1963 when the Baath took control, has been a central demand of anti-government protesters who have been calling for political reform and more freedoms since mid-March.
The law imposes restrictions on public gatherings and movements, authorises the detention and interrogation of any individual, as well as the surveillance of personal communications and media censorship.
Assad fires governor
Assad on Thursday also fired the governor of industrial city of Homs, north of Damascus, where protests last Friday turned violent, SANA reported.
Ghazal was the second governor tainted by protest-related violence to be sacked in less than a month.
In hints at change ahead, state media have allowed contributions by opposition figures and more freedom of expression.
In a move unthinkable just weeks ago, human rights lawyer Haytham Maleh, 80, one of the political prisoners given a presidential pardon last month, wrote an opinion piece on the emergency law for the Baath party newspaper.
State television has also been granting air time to people from across Syria to express their demands.
These are mainly social in character, but some have called for an end to the state of emergency and an article in the constitution enshrining the Baath party as leader of both the state and society.
But old habits also die hard.
Two dissidents, Raghida Hassan and Ammar Sheikh Haydar, have been sentenced to two years in prison by a military court in Homs, a rights activist told AFP.
Three others were sentenced in absentia to three years for "spreading false news likely to undermine the morale of the nation," said lawyer Khalil Mattuk who also heads the Syrian Centre for the Defence of Prisoners of Conscience.
The Kurds welcomed the move. Omar Osso, head of the Kurds' National Initiative, said it will help "tighten the unity" of the Syrian people.
"This is a historic step that has humanitarian and social dimensions," Osso said.
Six Syrian rights groups said Wednesday that judicial authorities ordered the release of 48 Kurds detained last year in the northern city of Raqqah after throwing stones at Syrian police who ordered Kurds celebrating their new year to replace their ethnic flags with Syrian ones.
Kurds - the largest ethnic minority in Syria - make up 15 percent of the country's 23 million population and have long complained of neglect and discrimination.