Damascus - Syria has begun releasing prisoners from government jails under a general amnesty announced by President Bashar al-Assad, a human rights lawyer told AFP on Tuesday.
“Dozens of prisoners began to be released from Adra prison (in Damascus province) on Monday and the releases will continue today,” Tuesday, Anwar al-Bunni said 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.
He added that those responsible for crimes such as torture or murder should not be released.
“There has always been a fear that somehow an amnesty could be used to turn a blind eye to abuses committed both by the government and non-state actors,” he said.
Assad's 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 percent of the vote, but the election was 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”.