Dissidents openly call for democracy in Damascus


More than 100 dissidents heard calls for a peaceful transition to democracy at a public meeting in Syria’s capital on Monday that they said was unprecedented in five decades of iron-fisted Baath party rule.
The opposition figures, all of them independent of any party affiliation, gathered in a hotel in Damascus to discuss a way out of the deadly clashes between security forces and protesters that have rocked Syria since mid-March. They sang the national anthem and held a minute’s silence for the “martyrs, both civilian and military.”
“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.” Louai Hussein, a writer and top activist who has spent time in jail, called for “the creation of a democratic state based on citizenship and human rights to achieve justice and the equality of all Syrians without discrimination.” “The tyrannical regime in power must go,” said Hussein.
The president of the Syrian League for Human Rights, Abdel Karim Rihawi, stressed that the meeting was not intended to take the place of the “protesters in the street.” “We will talk so that we can formulate a national strategy on how to end Syria’s current crisis,” he earlier told AFP. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 1,342 civilians have been killed in the govt’s crackdown and that 342 security force personnel have also died. 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.” There had been no confirmation from the Syrian authorities that the meeting would be allowed to go ahead.
Bunni told AFP that President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents would take part in the “national dialogue” he proposed last week only if peaceful demonstrations were authorised, political prisoners freed, the opposition recognised and the use of force ended. In a televised address on June 20 — only his third since the protests against his 11-year rule erupted — Assad said the proposed dialogue could lead to a new constitution and even an end to his Baath party’s monopoly on power. But Assad said he refused to reform Syria under “chaos,” drawing a pledge from the pro-democracy activists who have spearheaded the protests that their “revolution” would go on.