MANAMA, Bahrain – As Syrian and other Arab government ministers looked on, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice used a conference on Middle East democracy and development Saturday to criticize political repression in Syria and call for the release of political prisoners there.
"We continue to support the Syrian people's aspirations for liberty, democracy, and justice under the rule of law," Rice said at the start of a 36-nation gathering.
"We would like to see an end to the arbitrary detentions of democratic and human rights activists," Rice said. She mentioned democracy activist Kamal Labwani by name. He was arrested at the Damascus airport Tuesday night, after returning from the United States and a meeting at the White House with President Bush's deputy national security adviser.
Rice praised democratic advances in Afghanistan and Iraq, where she made a surprise visit Friday, and noted that with withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon last spring, "one million citizens in Lebanon have demanded and won their independence from Syrian domination."
Syria's foreign minister looked on without expression as Rice spoke.
Rice's remarks on Syria echoed a White House statement Thursday and is part of sustained U.S. criticism of the Damascus government over its alleged involvement in the assassination of an anti-Syrian politician in Lebanon, alleged help for terrorists in Iraq and the Palestinian territories and its human rights record at home.
The United States helped win a unanimous warning from the U.N. Security Council that Syria must cooperate with a U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut last February. His death launched street protests against Syria's three-decade political and military domination of Lebanon.
Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, was also among political prisoners arrested in 2001, when the government of President Bashar Assad cracked down on incipient political opposition.
He was sentenced to three years in prison on charges that include inciting rebellion, spreading false information and weakening national unity. He was released in September 2004.
Assad last week pardoned 190 political prisoners. Human rights activists say more than 2,500 political prisoners still are detained in Syria.
Rice is on a 10-day trip to the Middle East and Asia that will also include stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, where terrorist hotel bombings killed more than 50 people last week.
"It reminds us that we sit here to talk about a future of reform, a future of hope, a future in which economic prosperity and political participation can be imagined for the people from this region, and there are those who have quite another vision of what the region should look like," Rice said.
The United States was a driving force behind the conference in Bahrain, which is meant to promote economic and political reforms, including tolerance for government corruption, and engage women's rights activists and other social reformers.
Participants in the session announced a $100 million fund to promote economic enterprise in a region where populations are growing and unemployment is often high for young men. The fund includes $50 million from the United States, with contributions from Egypt, Morocco and Denmark.
"For democracy to achieve lasting and sustainable success, it must also be nurtured by a vibrant economy and an ever growing middle class," Rice said, noting that some 50 million to 100 million young people will enter the job market across the Middle East and neighboring countries in North Africa over the next five to 10 years.
The conference also launched a $50 million foundation aimed at promoting democracy and political reform in the Middle East.
Many Middle East nations are wary of Bush's second-term democracy agenda in the region, and some organizations the administration has tried to engage are reluctant to take State Department funding.
The conference was the second in a series that began in Rabat, Morocco, last December. At that session officials from more than 20 Islamic countries said political, economic and social reforms must go hand in hand with steps toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.