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Syrian president ratifies end of emergency rule

Syrian President Bashar Assad in a Jan. 6, 2009 file photo, at the Presidential palace in Damascus, Syria. AP Photo/Eric Feferberg

Syrian President Bashar Assad rubber-stamped a law for lifting the country's nearly 50-year-old state of emergency Thursday to meet a key demand of anti-government protests which have engulfed the country for more than a month.

The 45-year-old leader also approved the abolition of the state security court, which handled the trials of political prisoners, and backed a new law allowing the right to stage peaceful protests.

The decisions were made during the first meeting of the cabinet of Syria's new Prime Minister Adel Safar on Tuesday.

"This package is part of a strategic programs of political reforms aimed at strengthening the democratic process, broadening citizen participation (in politics), consolidating national unity and the security of the homeland and its citizens," private newspaper Al-Watan, which is close to the government, wrote in a front-page commentary Wednesday.

Most of Syria's 23 million people were born or grew up under the strict control of the state of emergency that, among other things, puts strict control on the media, allows eavesdropping on telecommunications and permits arrests without warrants from judicial authorities.

Complete coverage: Anger in the Arab world

The regime had claimed the reason for the emergency rule is because of the technical state of war with archenemy Israel.

It has made clear recently there will be no "terror law," as was circulated to replace the emergency law and that the General Punishment Law was enough.

Assad, in power since 2000, had told his cabinet last week to remove the state of emergency -- in place since his Baath Party took power in March 1963 - but added that such a move would give protesters no more reason to take to the streets.

To demonstrate legally, protestors will need from now on, in theory at least, permission from the Interior Ministry. Human right activists, however, voiced concern over the arrest of the leading opposition figure Mahmoud Issaa in Homs, the third largest Syrian city, Tuesday night.

Analysts say Assad, whose country sits on the fault lines of many Middle Eastern conflicts, has pursued relatively predictable external policies. Any political change in Syria would be a big deal for its friends and foes alike in a volatile region. Turmoil in Syria, they say, might see the pragmatic Baathists dislodged by Islamist or nationalist groups more hostile to Israel.

Yet the unrest, which rights groups say has cost more than 200 lives, shows no sign of abating. Defiant protests continued regardless, and three officers were killed in Homs, a central city known for its intellectuals and artists, officials said.

In the meantime, Amjad Abbas, chief of security police in the Syrian city of Banias, has been dismissed after five civilians were killed in a crackdown against pro-democracy protests there last week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In a sign of resistance to protesters' demands for reforms, the Interior Ministry on Monday night described the unrest as an insurrection by "armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations" trying to terrorize the population. Salafism is a strict form of Sunni Islam that many Arab governments equate with militant groups like al Qaeda.

The leadership backs the Islamist movement Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah but seeks peace with Israel. Assad was largely rehabilitated in the West after years in isolation after the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri.

Another package of reforms is also in the works, according to Syrian officials. The media law, which would give more freedom to journalists to operate, is on the way and the political party draft, promised in 2005 by the Baath Party Congress, is now being re-visited and is due for release by April 25. It will allow for establishing political parties that are based on neither a religious nor ethnic agenda.

Once this party law is finalized, however, it needs a new election law ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections to formulate what would happen to any particular party when and if it wins a considerable number of seats in Parliament.

"Syrians are now holding their collective breath, waiting to see whether these promised reforms are authentic, and how quickly the government will implement them," says Sami Moubayed, a political analyst.

"Typically, any new government around the world is evaluated 100 days after taking office. Although some people were quick to criticize the Adel Safar government, others are saying that it would be wise to give it the time space to see how and when these reforms unfold," he adds.

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