Syria’s president ordered on Thursday that a legal committee be set up to study the possibility of abolishing the country’s hated emergency laws that have been in place since 1963.
The announcement comes in the wake of an extraordinary protest movement in one of Mideast’s most autocratic regimes, with thousands of Syrians calling for change -- including the end of the emergency laws, which give security forces a free hand to arrest people without charge.
The state-run news agency said the committee would complete its study by April 25.
Thursday’s move appears to be an attempt by President Bashar Assad to show he will not be pressured to implement reform -- instead, he will make changes at his own pace. On Wednesday, he dashed expectations that he would announce sweeping reforms, blaming two weeks of popular fury that has gripped Syria on a foreign conspiracy.
Syrian TV said the ruling Baath Party’s regional command formed the committee made up of legal experts to study legislation that would “guarantee the country’s security and dignity of Syrians and combat terrorism.”
“This would pave the way for lifting the state of emergency laws,” it said, adding the committee would accomplish the study by April 25.
Assad on Tuesday also fired his Cabinet in an attempt to appease protesters, whose calls for change were touched off by the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on walls in the southern city of Daraa.
The protests spread to other parts of the country last week, and human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed since March 18 as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.
In his speech before Parliament Wednesday, his first public comments since Assad said Syria is being subjected to a “major conspiracy.”
He made only a passing reference to the protesters’ calls for change, saying he was in favor of reform, but acknowledged there have been delays. “The question is what reforms do we need,” he said, without offering any specifics.
Social networking sites immediately exploded with activists calling on Syrians to take to the streets. Within hours of Assad’s speech, residents of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people, although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters. The residents asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.
Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups, already has become a flashpoint for violence that could take on a dangerous sectarian tone in the coming days and weeks.