Syria's al-Assad: Emergency laws 'to end next week'

Bashar al-Assad said he thought the law would be lifted within a week

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he expects a state of emergency to be lifted next week, after weeks of anti-government protests.

He made the comments in a televised speech to his newly formed cabinet.

The lifting of the 48-year-old emergency law has been a key demand of the protesters.

On Friday, tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in the capital, Damascus, in one of the biggest turnouts since protests began.

While he repeated his view that his country was facing a conspiracy, Mr Assad said he did not believe the lifting of the state of emergency would destabilise Syria.

The Syrian leader told the cabinet a legal commission asked to examine the lifting of the law had come to its conclusions.

"I think the commission has finished its work, on Thursday, and the recommendations will be given to the government so that they become law immediately. I don't know how many days it will take you and I think that the maximum deadline for the lifting of the state of emergency will be next week," he said.

The law bans public gatherings of more than five people.

Analysis

This was a different speech from one President Bashar al-Assad delivered before an admiring parliament on 30 March, two weeks after the outbreak of by far the most serious internal trouble his regime has faced.

Now, giving his new government its marching orders, Mr Assad told ministers their mission was to deliver a raft of reforms, structural changes and a new partnership with the public that would make Syria an example for democracy in the region.

His words will no doubt be greeted with scepticism by protesters who have lived through the past month of violent repression and the decades of ruthless control which preceded it.

But Mr Assad came up with a tangible promise to meet one of their most strident demands - the lifting of the hated emergency laws which have been in place since 1963 and under which security agents have detained and tortured people with impunity.

New security legislation would be introduced in place of the emergency law, he said, adding that the new government should also study ideas for a multi-party system and greater press freedom.

The question now is whether the measures will be enough to persuade the demonstrators to go back to their homes, says the BBC's Owen Bennett Jones in neighbouring Lebanon, or whether they will simply encourage more protests in the hope of securing more reforms.

Batons and tear gas

Friday's protests in Damascus and other cities were among the largest in a month of unrest that has reportedly seen some 200 people killed.

The unrest is the biggest challenge to the rule of Mr Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000.

Security forces used tear gas and batons to disperse tens of thousands of protesters - some calling for reform, others calling demanding the overthrow of Mr Assad - in Damascus.

Thousands of people reportedly demonstrated in a number of other Syrian cities - including Deraa, Latakia, Baniyas and Qamishli - where violence has been previously reported.

Mr Assad formed a new government on Thursday and pronounced amnesty for an undisclosed number of people detained in the last month.

Map of Syria

He has also sacked some local officials and granted Syrian citizenship to thousands of the country's Kurdish minority - satisfying a long-held demand.

The United Nations and a number of Western governments have decried President Assad's use of force to try to quash the protests.

Human rights campaigners say hundreds of people across Syria have been arrested, including opposition figures, bloggers and activists.

Mr Assad blames the violence in recent weeks on armed gangs rather than reform-seekers and has vowed to put down further unrest.

US officials have said Iran is helping Syria to crack down on the protests, a charge both Tehran and Damascus have denied.

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