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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Syria's Assad to face two 'rivals' in May vote

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Head of the higher constitutional court, Jihad Al Laham during a news conference in Damascus. - Reuters
Head of the higher constitutional court, Jihad Al Laham during a news conference in Damascus. - Reuters

DAMASCUS: A Syrian former minister and a member of the Damascus-tolerated opposition will face Bashar al Assad in this month's presidential election, the constitutional court said Monday.


The Assad-appointed body approved only three out of 51 applications to stand in the May 26 ballot, among them the 55-year-old president himself, widely expected to win a fourth mandate.


The court's president said in a press conference broadcast on state TV that Abdallah Salloum Abdallah, a state minister from 2016 to 2020, had been approved to run for president.


The third candidate was named as Mahmoud Marei, a member of the so-called "tolerated opposition" long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.


All 48 other applications were ruled out for "failing to meet constitutional and legal requirements", the court president said without elaborating.


They have until May 7 to appeal.


Applicants needed to garner support from at least 35 members of parliament, each of whom is only allowed to back one candidate.


Exiled opposition members are de facto ruled out by an electoral law that stipulates candidates must have lived in Syria continuously for at least the past decade.


The election will be the second since the start of a decade-long conflict that has killed over 388,000 people and forced more than half of Syria's pre-war population from their homes.


Damascus has invited lawmakers from allied countries such Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela and Cuba to observe the electoral process.


In New York, Western members of the UN Security Council, led by the United States, France and Britain, on Wednesday rejected the outcome of the May 26 poll in advance, a position denounced by Russia as "unacceptable".


Assad, who has already been in power for 21 years, was elected by referendum in 2000 and 2007. For the first multi-candidate poll in 2014, only two candidates besides Assad, out of 24 applicants, were allowed to run.


Meanwhile, Assad issued a decree on Sunday authorising the release of prisoners, including those convicted for misdemeanours or complicity in acts of "terrorism", state media said.


The so-called general amnesty comes weeks before the May 26 presidential election, the second such polls since the start of the country's decade-long civil war. Assad is widely expected to secure a fourth term.


SANA news agency published the decree but did not say how many prisoners would benefit.


The amnesty stipulates that pardons will be granted to prisoners convicted for crimes committed before May 2, 2021, including those convicted for misdemeanours as well as minors facing certain charges.


The decree includes crimes related to the terrorism act of 2012, including "conspiracy" to commit a "terrorist" act.


"Terrorism" is a term used by Damascus to encompass acts carried out by rebels and anti-regime activists.


But suspects convicted of "terrorist" acts that led to deaths would not benefit from the amnesty, according to the text of the decree published by the state news agency.


Drug traffickers, smugglers and those convicted for tax evasion could benefit from the amnesty under certain conditions, namely if they agree to pay a fine, according to the text.


Also included in the amnesty are army deserters who turn themselves in within three months -- if they are in the country -- or within six months if they are abroad, it added.


Prisoners with incurable diseases over the age of 70 and kidnappers who agree to set free their hostages within 10 days would also be eligible.


Similar amnesties were announced in 2018 and in 2019.


In 2014, after securing a new term in a controversial election conducted only in government-controlled areas, Assad likewise issued an amnesty. Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests. - AFP


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