Syrian President Bashar Assad, shown in January, has reduced prison terms… (Syrian Arab News Agency…)
BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad issued an order Tuesday freeing up to 7,000 prison inmates, but it was not clear whether the decree would apply to any of those jailed for participation in the rebellion that is seeking to overthrow his regime.
Assad issued a combination of commuted sentences and a general amnesty for selected prisoners, according to the official state news agency. The amnesty did not include people convicted of "crimes of treason, espionage and terrorism," the news agency's English-language website said, so it presumably excluded opposition activists, whom the government labels terrorists.
However, the decree in Arabic said some convicted of terrorism could receive a commuted sentence, though it did not make it clear whether that included people arrested since the uprising began in March 2011.
Under the terms of the decree announced by the government, death sentences are being reduced to life sentences, life sentences are being reduced to 20 years, and amnesty is being granted to certain prisoners who are older than 70 or have incurable diseases.
Assad previously has offered amnesties that critics considered to be largely cosmetic.
On Monday, a rights group said Assad's security forces were holding hundreds of antigovernment activists in secret prisons, but the statement was impossible to confirm independently.
The amnesty was announced as the country's violent stalemate continues, with rebels and the government battling over two military bases in Idlib province, in the northwestern part of the country, bordering Turkey. A Syrian state newspaper claimed that the military had broken a months-long siege by the rebels surrounding the two bases. On Tuesday, rebels conceded that Syrian security forces had made gains.
"The revolutionaries in the area are all converging" on the bases, said Al Firas, an activist from Idlib reached by Skype. "The battle there has been running for several days." The activist said 17 rebel fighters had been killed.
He described the government as gaining a strategic victory by pushing rebels back, but said the opposition was still in control of most of Idlib province.
Bulos is a special correspondent.