By David Rosenberg

Damascus, Syria

Syrian expatriates joining protests against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad have been subject to surveillance and intimidation, including the arrest and torture of relatives back at home, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

In a report based on interviews with Syrians living in Europe and the Americas, the London-based human rights organization said people demonstrating outside their country's embassies are filmed or photographed by officials, identified and then harassed by phone calls, e-mails and Facebook messages warning them to stop, Amnesty said.

In the most serious cases, relatives of protestors have been arrested and/or forced to denounce family members on state-owned television, Amnesty said. In at least one case, Aladdin Mouhalhel, whose brother was filmed by officials demonstrating outside the Syrians embassy in Spain, has disappeared.

James Lynch, Amnesty's spokesman for Middle East and North African affairs, told The Media Line that the campaign appeared to be coordinated and may make use of pro-regime Syrians and Syrian organizations abroad.

"The patterns of what happens to people, the kind of warnings, the kind of language is quite similar," Lynch said. "There seems to be systematic monitoring and harassment. We would need to do more work to see if there is targeting of families inside Syria before concluding that this is also systematic."

The United Nations estimates some 2,700 people have been killed in Syria in the six-month-old anti-government rebellion, which has brought the country to a standstill and isolated the Al-Assad regime without succeeding in bringing it down. The report came amid signs that the Syrian government crackdown is growing more severe and mounting pressure from the international community to stop it.

Syrian troops have detained more than 3,000 people in the past three days in house to house raids in the rebel stronghold of Rastan, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting during the uprising, activists said on Monday. The UN Security Council was due to vote on a resolution calling on Syria to end its violent crackdown immediately. Diplomats were looking to soften the terms of the resolution in order to enlist the backing of Russia and China, which have been loathe to condemn Syria.

Malik Al-Abdeh, editor-in-chief of Barada satellite television, which provides independent coverage of Syrian news from London, said Syrian embassies have always spied on and harassed activists, but that the phenomenon has grown since the uprising broke out last March.

"The embassies aren't used to having ordinary citizens involved in political activity. Since the 15th of March, in the UK you have Syrians who were not politically active suddenly becoming active," Al-Abdeh told The Media Line. "The embassy knows very little about them because they have no record. It wants to know who these people are, who they work with and any way they can apply pressure on them to stop what they're doing."

Al-Abdeh said the London embassy tried to persuade two of his friends to spy on him before the uprising erupted and that he personally knows of five others who have been harassed since.

On Tuesday, some 100 expat protestors gathered in front of the Syrian embassy in London to mark release of the report. They held up signs with their names in Arabic and English as well as the names of their hometowns in Syria, declaring "I am not afraid."

"The idea is they won't be intimidated into silence by the Syrian regime," said Lynch. "People are taking great risks."

Among the activists cited in the Amnesty report, Malek Jandali, a 38-year-old pianist and composer, told Amnesty that his parents in Homs were beaten and locked in a bathroom and their flat looted after he performed at a pro-reform demonstration in front of the White House in July. The agents told his parents, who have since fled the country, "This is what happens when your son mocks the government."

Sondos Sulaiman, who lives in Germany, told Amnesty that her brother appeared on Syria state TV denouncing a video she had made in June calling on her fellow Alawites - the minority group to which the ruling Al-Assad family belongs - to stand up to the regime.

She said she hasn't been able to contact any of her family to confirm what is happening to them, in particular her brother. "I'm sure he would not have done this out of his own free will." she was quoted as saying in the report, The Long Reach of the Mukhabaraat, which refer in Arabic to the generic term for secret police.

In the only recorded instance of actual violence against expatriates, Rabee Al-Hayek, a 35-year-old engineer living in France, reported that he was one among several Syrians attacked during and after demonstrations outside the embassy in Paris. He said police officers who arrived at the scene told him that some of the assailants carried diplomatic passports, although Amnesty said other officials denied that.

Al-Abdeh said the embassies would likely avoid using their own personnel to assault expatriates but that they could count on certain expatriate organizations and their members. "These people are ideologically committed to the regime and wouldn't think twice about attacking anyone who opposes it," he said.

Amnesty urged host governments as well as Damascus to take action to stop the harassment, although Lynch said the diplomatic immunity of embassy personnel would constrain the options. They could be declared persona non grata, he suggested.

"There are precedents where diplomats have been charged in criminal proceedings," Lynch said. "It's not necessarily the case that every diplomat is completely protected under the laws."


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