DAMASCUS, Syria -- President Bashar Assad unexpectedly freed a prominent dissident from prison Saturday in what human rights activists hope could be a sign that he means to resume a trend toward greater freedom.
Riyahd Turk, 74, who has diabetes and high blood pressure, was released on humanitarian grounds, said a one-line announcement on the government-owned Syrian Arab News Agency. He seemed in high spirits as he made the 100-mile journey to his home city of Homs.
"I spent one year, two months and 10 days in the five-star hotel," Turk joked in a telephone call, referring to Akra Prison outside Damascus. "It was five-star treatment in prison -- but prison is a prison."
Turk said he was informed of his release when an army colonel appeared Saturday morning and asked where he would like to be taken in Damascus. He had had no inkling that a release was imminent.
A longtime Communist, Turk earned respect among Syrian opposition figures for enduring 17 years in prison under the late President Hafez Assad until being freed in 1998. He was one of 10 intellectuals and human rights figures arrested in late summer of last year, in a clampdown many here saw as the end of the "Damascus spring" under Bashar Assad.
Hafez Assad died in June 2000, and his then 34-year-old son, Bashar, a British-educated ophthalmologist, was chosen by the ruling Baath Party to succeed him. After assuming power, Bashar Assad seemed set to unleash a string of political and economic reforms. He ordered the release of more than 600 political prisoners, issued economic decrees and permitted freedom of political expression.
But some of the discussions exceeded what the Syrian government -- led by the secular, Arab nationalist, socialist-leaning Baathist movement -- felt it could tolerate. The arrest of Turk and nine other reformers in August and September 2001 put the brakes on the free-speech euphoria, which seemed to coincide with a slowdown in reforms.
Turk was arrested for telling a forum that Hafez Assad's 30 years in power had stagnated the country. Charged with attempting to change the constitution, inciting religious strife, spreading false information and slandering Syria, he was originally sentenced to five years.
A Damascus professional, asking not to be identified, said Saturday that he believes Turk "was sent to prison for [using] one word: dictator." He said that Turk had used it in an interview with the Qatar-based television station Al Jazeera to refer to the president's father, Hafez Assad, and that this was the catalyst for Turk's arrest.
After his release Saturday, Turk was unapologetic. "Why should the security apparatus arrest people for openly saying their opinions?" he asked. He said he would continue his political work "until my death."
"This is a very positive step that has both political and humanitarian implications," said Aktham Naisse, founder of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Syria. Speaking by telephone from his home in Latakia, Naisse said he hopes it will be followed by other amnesties or commutations for political prisoners.
Naisse's group believes there are 800 prisoners in Syria who could be considered "political" -- almost all the arrests dating from before Bashar Assad's ascent.
"It is well-known that Turk has political views that oppose the government. That is why this release has great political significance," Naisse said. "And that is why we think and hope that this step will be followed by other steps."
Naisse, who spent 1991-98 in prison for founding the human rights committee in 1991, said he was not surprised when the government clamped down on dissident voices last year.
"At the time, Syria was not very ready to have democratic trends, and the democratic trends that existed were not too deep," he said. Asked whether he thought such trends would take hold this time, he said, "We hope so."
Saturday also was a key date for the regime, the anniversary of when Hafez Assad and a group of military officers assumed power in 1970. Festivities included a memorial at Assad's tomb near his home outside Latakia.