Security forces with batons have dispersed 150 demonstrators who had gathered in central of Damascus on Wednesday in a very rare protest against the Syrian government. The protesters had gathered outside the Interior Ministry to demand the release of political prisoners and were beaten by scores of plainclothes policemen. Some were wounded and at least 15 were detained, including leading political activist Suhair al-Attasi.Attasi had said Syrian authorities would not be able to escape the tumult shaking the Arab world by refusing to open the country's political system and allowing free expression. She was pulled away by her hair, according to one demonstrator. Amon the others arrested were Tayyib Tizini, 69, a professor of philosophy at Damascus University, and the sister and son of Kamal Labwani, a doctor jailed for "weakening national morale' and 'inciting a foreign country to invade Syria.' (click here to read more about Labwani, in Dutch)
One day earlier there was also a protest by some tens of people, who briefly chanted political slogans in the centre of Damascus (see video). Wednesday's gathering in Marjeh square, an Ottoman-era square in the centre of the capital, had been silent, with protesters raising pictures of imprisoned relatives and friends, before security forces started hitting them with their batons. One of the demonstrators carried a picture of Mohannad al-Hassani, a lawyer who won an international human rights prize last May for representing political prisoners. He was sentenced a month later to three years in jail.
The protesters dispersed after the attack, and security forces continued arresting more people, shoving them into a bus and a darkened van.A brief counter-demonstration then started, with people chanting: "With our soul, with our blood, we shall sacrifice for Bashar," in reference to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Since mass uprisings overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Syrian authorities have intensified a long-running campaign of arrests of dissidents, independent writers and opposition figures.
There are an estimated 3,000-4,000 political prisoners in Syria, mostly held without trial. They include Kurds, Islamists and secular figures who have been demanding a democratic system to replace the Baath Party's five decade monopoly of power.