Thirteen Syrian political prisoners have begun a hunger strike to demand their release and the lifting of emergency laws that give authorities a free hand to jail political and human rights activists, a rights group said Monday.
The prisoners include prominent human rights activist Haitham al-Maleh, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Al-Maleh, who is 80 years old and has diabetes and thyroid problems, has been under arrest since October 2009. He was jailed from 1980 until 1986 for demanding constitutional reforms.
The rights group said the activists launched the hunger strike in Damascus' Adra prison. The political detainees also include Ali Abdullah of the Damascus Declaration opposition group, prominent lawyer Anwar al-Bunni and Kurdish activist Mashaal Tammo.
The political detainees demanded an end to the emergency laws in force since the Baath Party came to power in 1963.
"Time has come to end this persecution matter as the winds of democratic change spread in the Arab world," the political detainees were quoted as saying in a statement from the rights group.
The rights group said it backs the detainees and called for their immediate release.
President Bashar Assad released hundreds of political prisoners after coming to power upon the death of his father in 2000, but he clamped down on liberals, showing that there were limits to dissent under his rule.
The state news agency reported Monday that Assad declared an amnesty for prisoners convicted of minor crimes such as theft and forgery. He has declared such amnesties for thousands of prisoners, usually coinciding with religious or national holidays.
Monday's amnesty came a day before the 48th anniversary of the Baath Party's accession to power.
The amnesty this year comes during a wave of unrest in the Middle East that has already brought down the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and threatened the rule of others.
It was not clear how many prisoners will be affected by the decree, but lawyers say it involves thousands.