updated 3/8/2004 11:02:46 AM ET 2004-03-08T16:02:46

Syrian authorities on Monday broke up a rare protest by human rights activists demanding political and civil reforms on the 41st anniversary of the ruling party’s accession to power.

It was not clear how many of the approximately 20 activists were arrested. Witnesses speaking on condition of anonymity said several were seen taken away in buses by Syrian police.

Several news photographers and reporters were briefly detained and questioned and later released.

The protest outside parliament, organized by the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, would have been the first of its kind in a country where political activity is tightly controlled.

The head of the group, Aktham Naisse, told The Associated Press a day earlier that he had been pressured by authorities to cancel the sit-in.

A close relative of Naisse, who did not want to be identified, said Naisse was among those arrested.

Before the protest, Syrian riot police and plainclothes security agents stood ready around the parliament building in downtown Damascus.

When the group of around 20 protesters arrived, they were told to disperse. One man raised a banner that read: “Freedom for Prisoners of Opinion and Conscience.” The banner was quickly torn up by agents, who snatched the notebooks of journalists gathered to cover the sit-in.

At one point, Naisse, a lawyer from the northern town of Latakia, told the activists to raise their hands in the air, which they did, and told them: “We’re going to prison, we are not afraid.”

Police then dispersed the protesters and angrily told reporters to leave.

Naisse helped found the human rights group in 1991 and spent seven years in detention until being pardoned in 1998 by late Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Naisse told AP on Sunday that he had been summoned by security agents repeatedly in the past few days and told indirectly to cancel the sit-in. He said he was told the protests were unnecessary and “served American interests at this time.” Since the U.S.-led war on Iraq, Syria has been under pressure from the U.S. administration to reform and stop support for what the U.S. deems to be terrorist organizations in the region.

But Naisse said the protest would go on.

Protest called on Baath anniversary
Syria on Monday marked the 1963 March Revolution, when a coup brought the Baath Arab Socialist Party to power. In Damascus, Syrian flags and large banners proclaiming support for President Bashar Assad filled the streets.

The rights group had declared Monday to be a national day of protest against the state of emergency imposed since 1963 and to call for political, social, cultural and economic reforms. Peaceful protests were also scheduled to take place outside Syrian embassies in London and Paris.

“(Monday) will be a test for all, especially pro-democracy activists who have a chance to prove that their demands are not just words on paper,” Naisse said.

Naisse’s group has circulated a petition, to be handed to Syrian authorities later this month, demanding political and economic reform. Naisse had hoped the petition, started in January, would collect a million signatures by March, but it so far only has 6,000.

Syria has a population of around 18 million.

The petition calls for the abrogation of emergency laws, the release of political detainees and return of all exiles.

President Bashar Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, has taken limited steps to loosen Syria from the totalitarian system set up by his father. He released hundreds of political detainees and, initially, allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings indoors.

But in 2001, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, raiding their meetings and jailing two lawmakers and other activists. They were convicted on a charge of trying illegally to change the constitution.

Assad, in a January interview with the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, said reforms were already in place but made clear he rejected Western-style democracy. “We will not accept wearing clothes that are not tailored for us,” he said.

He insisted there was room for criticism under his reign but, in a sign that there were limits to his willingness to tolerate dissent, he added: “You cannot respect those who do not respect their country.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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