Syrian Opposition Dismiss Assad Speech, Amnesty Declaration

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, addressing the country on Monday. Rights groups have criticized the speech and subsequent amnesty measures, calling them insufficient. (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)

Syrian Opposition Dismiss Assad Speech, Amnesty Declaration

Syrian president announces general amnesty for crimes committed up until June 20, state news agency reports.

DAMASCUS - Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, has ordered a new general amnesty for all crimes committed in the country up until June 20, in another apparent attempt to calm months of protests against his rule.

The state news agency, SANA, announced the move on Tuesday, nearly a month after Assad issued a similar amnesty for all political crimes.

"President Assad has issued a decree granting a general amnesty for crimes committed before the date of June 20, 2011," SANA reported, without giving details.

The president ordered a reprieve on May 31 for all political prisoners in the country, including members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of detainees were released, according to rights groups.

But the amnesty decrees are believed to be a part of the overtures by the Syrian government to its opposition, largely seen as symbolic. Rights groups have criticised the amnesty measures, calling them insufficient.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of pro-Assad demonstrators rallied in central Damascus on Tuesday, news agencies reported.

They gathered in Omeyyades Square, waving Syrian flags and the president's portrait, chanting, "We will sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar!" the AFP said.

Syrian state television also reported pro-Assad demonstrations taking place in Homs.

Assad blames 'saboteurs'

Tuesday's developments came a day after Assad addressed the nation in a televised speech in which he acknowledged demands for reform were legitimate, but said "saboteurs" were exploiting the situation.

Although he called for "national dialogue," he said, "there is no political solution with those who carry arms and kill".

Protesters took to the streets across Syria on Monday to denounce the speech, saying his address did not meet popular demands for sweeping political reform.

Rallies against Assad were held in major cities including Homs, Hama, Latakia and in Damascus suburbs.

In the Sleibeh and Raml al-Filistini districts of the coastal city of Latakia, protesters chanted "liar, liar".

"People were still hoping he would say something meaningful that would result in tanks and troops leaving the streets. They were disappointed and started going out as soon as Assad finished talking," one activist in the city said.

Demonstrations also took place in the eastern city of Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, the southern city of Deraa and other towns in the Hauran Plain, cradle of the uprising, now in its fourth month.

Activists said dozens of students were arrested in a protest at the campus of Aleppo University.

Meanwhile, state television aired footage from a pro-Assad rally at the Aleppo citadel.

'What Syrians want'

Syria's opposition dismissed the speech, saying it lacked any clear sign of a transition to true democracy.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an activist network, said in a statement that the president had turned a "blind eye" to the "new reality" the uprising had created.

The LCC dismissed Assad's call for dialogue as a way to gain more time.

But Bouthaina Shaaban, a minister in Assad's government and an adviser to the president, said his reform agenda is based on "what the Syrian people want".

"Martial law is lifted, there's committees for new political parties, for new electoral laws, for new media laws."

"For the last two months he's met with thousands of people from all over the country, from all walks of life, from all religions, and hence, the president's vision is based on what the Syrian people want and what the Syrian people need", she told Al Jazeera.

Global reaction

Barack Obama, the US president, spoke with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, on Monday about the situation in Syria, the White House said.

"The leaders agreed that the Syrian government must end the use of violence now and promptly enact meaningful reforms that respect the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people," the White House said in a statement.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said Assad's address was "not enough" and urged the president to implement a multi-party system in Syria.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief also described Assad's speech as "disappointing".

The EU was preparing to expand its sanctions on Syria in response to worsening violence against opponents of the government, according to a statement agreed by EU foreign ministers.

"President Bashar actually believes that he's making serious concessions," David Lesch, a professor of Middle Eastern History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, told Al Jazeera.

"There's a disconnect between Washington and the rest of the international community and the Syrian regime, in terms of the necessary concessions to make in order to initiate a real national dialogue toward real reform."

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