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Syria prisoner releases begin after amnesty: lawyer

Syria has begun releasing prisoners from government jails under a general amnesty announced by President Bashar al-Assad, human rights lawyers told AFP on Tuesday.

DAMASCUS: Syria has begun releasing prisoners from government jails under a general amnesty announced by President Bashar al-Assad, human rights lawyers told AFP on Tuesday.

Rights lawyers also said prominent prisoners of conscience, including journalist Mazen Darwish, were expected to be freed under the amnesty.

"Dozens of prisoners began to be released from Adra prison (in Damascus province) yesterday and the releases will continue today," Anwar al-Bunni said Tuesday, a day after the unprecedented wide-ranging amnesty was announced.

"The anti-terrorism tribunal and criminal courts are sending lists of the prisoners to be released to the prisons, and security services are handling the lists of those to be released from their facilities," said Bunni.

The releases came a day after Syrian state television reported that Assad had declared an unprecedented amnesty, extending for the first time to those accused under the country's anti-terrorism legislation.

The government has dubbed all those opposed to Assad's rule -- armed opposition fighters and peaceful activists alike -- of "terrorism", and used the law to imprison high-profile dissidents.

The amnesty is also the first to offer clemency to foreign jihadists fighting for the opposition, as long as they hand themselves in within a month.

Those who deserted from the army will be extended a full pardon if they hand themselves in within three months of the decree, according to the text.

But it was unclear how many prisoners might be freed under the amnesty, as previous clemency decisions have not seen large numbers of detainees released.

"It is still unclear who will benefit from the amnesty," said Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.

"This amnesty should not be yet another false promise, and the released should not be replaced by new activists being wrongfully imprisoned," Houry told AFP.

Syrian lawyer Michel Shammas meanwhile said that it was unclear how the decree would apply for more than 50,000 people being detained in the country's notorious security branches, where torture is systematic.

But he and Bunni said several prominent figures were expected to be freed under the amnesty.

"Mazen Darwish, Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir will be released, as will activist Leyla Awad, psychologist Jamal Nawfal, and Raneem Maatuq, daughter of (jailed lawyer) Khalil Maatuq," said Shammas.

"But there is no meaning for an amnesty if it doesn't include all the detainees, and we don't know yet how the decree will be applied for more than 50,000 people being held in security branches."

Darwish, Ghreir and Zaitani were arrested in a raid on the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) where they work, in February 2012.

He and his colleagues face trial for activities "such as monitoring online news and publishing the names of the dead and disappeared."

Meanwhile, Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi told AFP that more than 100 people who handed themselves over to authorities after being trapped in a nearly two-year siege of the central city "will be at home in two days".

Assad issued the amnesty five days after he won another seven-year term in the country's first multi-candidate presidential vote.

He secured nearly 90 per cent of the vote in an election dismissed as a "farce" by Syria's opposition and many in the international community.

State television on Monday cited Justice Minister Najem al-Ahmad as saying the amnesty was issued in the context of "social forgiveness, national cohesion calls for coexistence, as the army secures several military victories".

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