Government Ignores Calls to Reform Justice System
(New York) -The Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), a special court with almost no due process guarantees that violates the right to a fair trial, resumed its activities this month following an eight-month suspension, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the resumption, the court has sentenced at least five defendants and questioned another six, on charges that include "membership in a banned organization" and "contact with the enemy." Human Rights Watch urged the Syrian authorities to dissolve the court and provide all defendants with a free and fair trial.
The court suspended its operations in July 2008 following a riot at Sednaya prison, where most of the court's pretrial detainees are held. The authorities quelled the riot violently and subsequently imposed a total blackout on information concerning detainees in Sednaya. The Syrian authorities have never issued any explanation for the suspension of the court's hearings, but it was probably linked to the information blackout.
"The resumption of business in this kangaroo court is a distressing signal that Syrian authorities have no interest in addressing their flawed justice system," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of revealing the fate of those detained in Sednaya and referring the accused to courts that can actually dispense justice, they decided to resume sentencing defendants in a court that rubber-stamps whatever the security services want."
The court resumed its work in secrecy and without any explanation. According to three Syrian activists, the court resumed operations about three weeks ago without any warning. A Western diplomat who has access to the court confirmed that the court had resumed operations after he attended a trial on March 22, 2009.
In a report issued in February, Human Rights Watch documented how the Syrian authorities use the SSSC to silence dissent by convicting defendants on the basis of vague charges that often criminalize freedom of expression and in trials that lack basic due process guarantees. By decree, this court is exempt from the rules of criminal procedure that apply in Syria's criminal courts, and defendants have no right to appeal their verdicts to a higher tribunal. Defense lawyers play a largely ceremonial role and usually see their clients for the first time on the day of the trial.
Little is known about the cases decided by the court since it has resumed its operations. Access to the court remains restricted to defense lawyers and Western diplomats, many of whom were not aware that the court had resumed its operations. The Syrian authorities granted Western diplomats access to the court in 2004 but never provided any explanation for their decision.
According to information from two activists and a diplomat, this month the court sentenced Dr. Fadi `Issa to 12 years in prison on charges of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad al-Halabi to three years on unknown charges, and Khalil Abu Zeid to five years on charges of "committing an act intended to cause an armed rebellion against the authorities."
In a brief 30-minute session last Sunday, the court sentenced two Syrians whose identities are not known on various charges, including "contact with the enemy." The court also questioned five Syrian Kurdish activists on unknown charges and a Lebanese citizen accused of being in contact with the Syrian opposition figure Abdel Halim Khaddam.
"The international community is opening up to Damascus," said Whitson. "The question is whether the Syrian officials will open up their courts to scrutiny and provide their people with fair and public trials. An essential first step would be to abolish the SSSC."