Syria has freed more than 400 civil servants, judges, lawyers, and journalists detained this year in a crackdown on social media dissent, a move seen by rights activists and former detainees as intended to win over public opinion ahead of presidential elections.
Those released after being held under Syria’s cyber-crimes law were among thousands freed this month under a general amnesty for currency speculators, drug dealers, smugglers, and kidnappers ahead of the May 26 election that is expected to hand President Bashar al-Assad a fourth term.
Most of the freed social media critics were supporters of the Syrian authorities’ handling of the uprising in 2011 that spiraled into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands.
The amnesty excluded tens of thousands of Assad opponents and political detainees held for years without trial, many of whom are believed dead, rights groups say.
“The auspicious timing of the release right before elections of a moderate loyalist camp … is to generate a facade of entertaining some form of dissent to further make elections look credible,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher with US-based Human Rights Watch.
The group had seen an uptick in arrests for online activities in recent months to silence public disaffection over Syria’s economic crisis.
The crackdown under the cyber-crimes law, of mainly Assad supporters, was intended to instill fear ahead of elections, according to two released detainees, who requested anonymity.
None of those arrested had criticized Assad, a capital offense, and most were rounded up by security forces for online posts ranging from a “like” on a Facebook comment lamenting growing hardship and critical of the government to remarks decrying state corruption.
At least 60 of those released are well-known in their local communities, including senior police officers, judges, senior customs inspectors, state-employed journalists, lawyers, university students, businessmen, and women’s rights advocates detainees said.
The releases were among steps taken in recent weeks ahead of the elections to influence public opinion, such as efforts to fight sky-rocketing inflation, and extending government grants to state employees in areas suffering from economic hardship.
In January, the interior ministry warned that violators of the cyber-crimes law, which criminalizes social media comments deemed to undermine the authority of the state, would face a minimum of six months in prison.
The ministry said it would pursue people who leaked fake news to portals that “distort and sow confusion in public opinion”.
Family members said Hala Jerf, a leading presenter on state television, Firyal Jahjah, a senior civil servant who serves as the head of a government inspection agency, and a prominent local journalist in Lattakia province, Kenan Wakkaf, were among those released.
“I will stay with you, the voice that believes truth is the highest value. To corruption, I say you think you have shaken my resolve or maybe frightened me? You have not even scared my boots,” Wakkaf said in a post after he arrived home.
According to two released detainees who requested anonymity because they were warned not to speak publicly, the majority of those released were not formally charged or put on trial.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.