Geneva - The violent incidents that erupted during protests against deteriorating living and economic conditions in As-Suwayda, south-eastern Syria, are extremely concerning, said Euro-Med Monitor in a statement.

On Sunday 4 December, Syrian security forces fired live ammunition at protestors near the As-Suwayda Governorate building, killing a young man, Murad al-Matni, and injuring several others. Protesters had demanded that security violations and the deterioration of living conditions be addressed; some demonstrators chanted for the regime’s overthrow.

Hundreds of Syrians peacefully demonstrated in As-Suwayda last Sunday, but the situation escalated as several protestors stormed the governorate building, setting fire to part of it and destroying its contents, as well as torching a nearby security car. Meanwhile, security forces opened direct fire, shooting haphazardly at protesters to disperse the crowd, and then continuing to target people.

   90% of the population in As-Suwayda has fallen below the poverty line, and there is additional and constant suffering due to near-total power and fuel outages, especially during the cold winter months   

Some protesters were carrying automatic weapons. According to the Syrian Ministry of Interior, policeman Mahmoud al-Salmawi was shot dead by “outlaws” attempting to storm police headquarters in As-Suwayda. The use of excessive force by Syrian security forces to suppress protests, however, and particularly the use of live ammunition, cannot be justified by the fact that some demonstrators used violence. Syria’s security forces and army, as well as allied militia, have used brutal methods to suppress the popular protests that began in March 2011, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries among unarmed peaceful protestors.

The Syrian government and its affiliated agencies consider all forms of protest and free speech to be acts of treason and dishonour—a policy put in place to legitimise and facilitate acts of violent repression. Official state media and pro-government activists have referred to the protesters as “outlaws” and “traitors” in an effort to focus on vandalism committed by some individuals, in order to incite violence against them all while ignoring protesters’ basic demands.

For several months now, people in the As-Suwayda Governorate have been suffering from major and worsening crises, including the cessation of government aid for hundreds of thousands of them. 90% of the population there has fallen below the poverty line, and there is additional and constant suffering due to near-total power and fuel outages, especially during the cold winter months.

As-Suwayda is plagued by frequent armed conflicts between unofficial armed groups affiliated with the country’s security forces, harassment of the civilian population by those groups, and the execution of arbitrary tasks—illegally, and in the interest of the security services and those within them who possess influence. This has exacerbated the general population’s suffering and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the Governorate.

The right to peaceful assembly is a legitimate right guaranteed by relevant international conventions, and the Syrian government must respect this right and ensure that individuals can exercise it freely and without fear of harassment or targeting. Euro-Med Monitor urges protesters to refrain from using violence and use only peaceful methods of protest. The government must launch a thorough and independent investigation into the violent incidents that have accompanied the protests, identify all those responsible for the shootings, hold them accountable, and ensure that similar incidents do not occur in the future.

Euro-Med Monitor calls on the Syrian government to act immediately to find solutions to the escalating crises that Syrians are facing, stop the abuses of the general population by security forces and the armed groups associated with them, and release all those arrested for exercising their legitimate rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.