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Syria continues Kurdish repression: rights group

West must raise human rights issue with Damascus

Human Rights Watch urged the United States and Europe on Thursday to raise the plight of Syria's Kurdish minority in talks with Damascus.

Pressure on Syria to reform its political system and grant rights to its Kurdish population has been easing since Western powers resumed ties with Damascus, ending years of international isolation.

"The international community, in particular the United States and the European Union, should ensure that human rights concerns, including the treatment of Kurds, are part of their discussions with Syria," the New York-based group said in a report. "Ignoring the treatment of Kurds in Syria will not make the problem go away.".

Syrian officials do not refer to the Kurdish issue in public, but President Bashar al-Assad has made clear that his priority was to preserve stability and national cohesion.

The Human Rights Watch report said the international community's talks with Damascus have focused on Syria's political role in the Middle East and its regional influence, with a "lack of interest" about discussing the Kurdish issue.

Syrian authorities "have maintained a harsh policy of increased repression" against the Kurds despite the rapprochement with the West, it said.

Kurds make up about 10 percent of Syria's population, and Turkey, Iran and Iraq also have Kurdish minorities.

The report, entitled "Group denial, repression of Kurdish political and cultural rights in Syria", said Syria's treatment of its Kurdish minority also targeted the celebration of their ethnic identity.

"The repression is part of the Syrian government's broader suppression of any form of political dissent, but it also presents certain distinguishing features, such as the repression of cultural gatherings because the government perceives Kurdish identity as a threat," it said.

The international community, in particular the United States and the European Union, should ensure that human rights concerns, including the treatment of Kurds, are part of their discussions with Syria

Human Rights Watch

Property restrictions

The report said a presidential decree last year placed controls on transferring property in areas inhabited by Kurds. Also in 2008 security forces killed three Kurds celebrating the Kurdish Nowruz new year.

In 2007, security forces fired at Kurdish crowds protesting about Turkish attacks on Iraqi Kurdistan, killing one person.

There have been no reported killings this year, but security forces detained 21 people who had planned a vigil to protest against the presidential property decree, the report said.

Around 15 Kurdish leaders have been arrested over the last four years, including Meshal al-Tammo who was jailed for three-and-a-half years in May for "weakening national morale".

Tammo warned before his sentencing that what he described as Syria's mistreatment of Kurds risked a repeat of violence that erupted in Kurdish areas in 2004 after security forces killed Kurdish football fans.

Kurds held demonstrations then in northern Syria about a lack of civil rights, including a 1960s census that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Kurds being denied citizenship and bans on teaching Kurdish language.

At least 36 people were killed and 169 injured in the violence, mostly Kurds, Human Rights Watch said.

"Democratic and human rights reforms in Syria that improve the situation for Kurds and non-Kurds alike would go a long way toward alleviating the tension between the Kurds and the Syrian state," the report added.

According to the report, some former Kurdish detainees who were interviewed said they had been tortured, with methods including beating and sleep deprivation.
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To Human Rights Watch's knowledge, the Syrian government has not conducted any investigation into these torture allegations. The harassment of Kurdish activists has continued even after their release from detention," the report said.

Democratic and human rights reforms in Syria that improve the situation for Kurds and non-Kurds alike would go a long way toward alleviating the tension between the Kurds and the Syrian state

Human Rights Watch