Syria’s Assad ups penalty for payments in foreign bills

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday increased the punishment for transacting in foreign currencies to seven years hard labour, the presidency said, after the Syrian pound plummeted on the black market.

A new decree “upped the penalty for anybody who deals in anything other than the Syrian pound for payments, or any kind of commercial transaction”, it said.

The punishment was increased from up to three years detention to seven years hard labour, as well as a fine, the presidency said in a statement.

Alongside the use of foreign currencies, the punishment would also be applied to transactions paid in precious metals, it said.

The Syrian pound has sunk to 1,200 to the dollar on the black market in recent weeks, despite an official exchange rate fixed at 434 to the greenback.

Before Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, the rate stood at 48 pounds to the dollar.

Syrians are alarmed by record hikes in key staples such as sugar and rice, while blackouts in government-held areas have increased over fuel shortages.

Pro-government economists blame the economic crisis on international sanctions against Damascus.

But they say the recent de-facto devaluation of the Syrian pound is due to a liquidity crisis in neighboring Lebanon, which has long served as a conduit for foreign currency into government-held areas of Syria.

On Saturday, Assad also increased fines for circulating information that seeks “to undermine confidence in the strength of the country’s currency”, the presidency said.

Syria’s nearly nine-year civil war has battered the country’s economy, and depleted its foreign currency reserves.

An array of international sanctions have targeted Assad’s government and associated businessmen since the start of the war in 2011.