Syria reverses ban on Islamic face veil in schools

Syria puts reform on the agenda amid calls for justice


Syria closed the country's only casino Wednesday and reversed a decision that bans teachers from wearing the Islamic veil - moves seen an attempt to reach out to conservative Muslims ahead of calls for pro-democracy demonstrations.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad banned the niqab, the full Islamic face veil that reveals only a woman's eyes, in July as part of his campaign to mute sectarian differences. Hundreds of primary school teachers who were wearing the niqab at government-run schools were transferred in June to administrative jobs, angering many conservative Muslims.

On Wednesday, Ali Saad, the education minister in the Syria's caretaker government, said the teachers were now allowed to return to their jobs, according to the state-run news agency, SANA. He added that the ministry would discuss any new application by any teacher willing to go back to her work.

The billowing black robe known as a niqab is not widespread in Syria, although it has become more common recently - something that has not gone unnoticed in a country governed by a secular regime.

Also Wednesday, the Syrian state-run newspaper Tishrin reported that Casino Damascus has been closed because the practices of the club's owners that "violate laws and regulations." It did not elaborate.

Observant Muslims consider casino betting, lottery participation and sports betting to be particularly un-Islamic.


Syrian lawmakers plan to adopt major reforms in May, including an end to emergency rule, a politician close to the regime said Wednesday as rights bodies called for a probe into protest deaths.

"There will be an extraordinary (parliament) session from May 2 to 6 in which social and political laws will be adopted in line with the reforms desired by the head of state," the politician told AFP.

"Among them is new legislation that will replace the current emergency law," he said, adding that the proposed bill will be presented to the head of state before the end of the week, well ahead of an April 25 deadline.

According to the same source, al-Assad "intends to ask members of civil society for their input and then the government will adopt the draft law to present it to parliament early May".

The lifting of emergency rule, in place since 1962, has been a central demand of anti-government protestors who have been calling for political reform and more freedoms since mid-March.

The politician did not specify whether laws governing the formation of political parties and media would be reviewed in this extraordinary session but MP Ahmad Munir confirmed that the session will take place.

"In general, they (sessions) last only one day but since this time we have been called in for five days, it is an indicator there will be draft laws to study and adopt," he said adding the reforms would be published by state media.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch and six Syrian right monitors called on the authorities to investigate the fatal shooting of protesters in Douma, near Damascus, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

New-York based Human Rights Watch called on Syria's president to "immediately order Syrian security forces to stop using unjustified lethal force against anti-government protesters".

"For three weeks, Syria's security forces have been firing on largely peaceful protesters," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in Paris has said 123 people were killed in anti-government demonstrations up to Friday April 1, when unrest struck Douma, a suburb north of Damascus.

At least eight people, but perhaps as many as 15, were killed that Friday in Douma when men in civilian clothes, suspected by witnesses of being from the security services, opened fire at demonstrators, HRW said.

Protesters in Douma cited by the HRW said they were chanting "peaceful, peaceful" when clashes broke out with riot police who resorted to teargas and beating demonstrators in an effort to snuff the Friday rally.

After two hours of confrontations, men in civilian clothes, whom protesters believed to be security service officers because they were positioned behind riot police, opened fired with Kalashnikovs at stone-throwing demonstrators.

An unnamed official told the official SANA news agency that an unknown "armed group" shot at both protesters and security forces from rooftops but provided no details about injuries to security forces.

"Instead of investigating those responsible for shootings, Syria's officials try to deflect responsibility by accusing unknown armed groups," Whitson said.

The rights body called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to "schedule a special session to address rights violations in Syria, including the unlawful use of force against demonstrators."

It also called on the Syrian president to set up a committee to investigate the shootings in Douma, as he did for the killings of protesters in the cities of Daraa and Latakia, and to hold those responsible to account.

"The government should investigate each shooting, and hold accountable anyone responsible for the unlawful use of force," said the rights group.

Six Syrian rights organisations said Wednesday in a joint statement they favoured forming a neutral investigative committee that includes human rights activists to identify the perpetrators of violence and bring them to justice.

In the southern agricultural town of Daraa, where dozens were killed and wounded in more than two weeks of anti-regime protests, shops remained closed for a second consecutive day, according to a human rights activists.

He said that Syrian authorities had distributed financial compensation of one million syrian pounds (21,000 dollars, or 14,700 euros) to the family of "each martyr" fallen during political unrest.

"Some accepted but the majority refused," he said.

In Damascus, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu voiced his country's backing for a Syrian government reform package on Wednesday when he met President Assad.