(Damascus, October 30, 2008) – Syria’s sentencing of a dozen leading democracy advocates to more than two years in prison is the latest evidence of Syria’s repression of opposition groups, Human Rights Watch said today. The democracy activists, including doctors, lawyers, writers, and an artist, were sentenced on October 29, 2008 to 30 months in prison on politically motivated charges.
In a sentencing session that barely lasted 20 minutes, the First Damascus Criminal Court, presided over by Muhieldeen Hallaq, convicted the 12 activists on vaguely defined charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” The authorities had detained the democracy activists, including former member of parliament Riad Seif, after they participated in a meeting last December of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups.
Founded in 2005, the Damascus Declaration is a coalition of political parties and independent activists whose stated goal is to build internal support for peaceful democratic change in Syria.
“In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The trial was a mere cover to legitimize the government’s repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics.”
Human Rights Watch said that the detention and trial of the activists was marred from the beginning. Syrian security forces held the activists initially for up to 40 days in incommunicado detention. Eight of the 12 detainees told the investigative judge that State Security officials beat them during their interrogation and forced them to sign false statements “confessing” that they planned to take money from foreign countries in order to divide the country by giving the Kurds a separate state. One of the detainees, `Ali al-Abdullah, suffered injury to his ear as a result of the beating he endured. The court did not order any independent investigation regarding the allegations of ill-treatment.
During the trial, the activists confirmed their involvement in the Damascus Declaration, but pleaded not guilty and denied the charges against them. In their defense session on September 24, the defendants expressed doubts about the trial since it was their “freedom of expression that was on trial.” Another detainee, Walid al-Bunni, a physician, told the court during his defense that “getting into the details of my defense is useless, but I will ask: what is the basis of the accusations?”
One of the defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the defense team will likely appeal the sentence within the required 30 days. He summarized the judgment by saying “membership in the Damascus Declaration is now criminalized.” The wife of one of the sentenced detainees who had been jailed in the past for his activism expressed her disgust at the trial. “We don’t know what to feel anymore. I don’t care if the sentence is for 2.5 years or 10 years. My husband should not be in jail in the first place.”
Syria has a long record of prosecuting political activists who peacefully express their opinions. On May 13, 2007, the Second Damascus Criminal Court sentenced four prominent activists, including prominent writer Michel Kilo and political activist Mahmud `Issa, to periods varying from three to 10 years in prison for “weakening national sentiment” after they signed a declaration calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations.
Syrian security services have a significant influence in the trials of political activists, whether before the criminal courts or exceptional courts. While they often exercise such influence behind closed doors, in some instances evidence has emerged in public, as in the 2007 trial of Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering. In that trial, the head of National Security sent a letter to the Minister of Justice asking him to charge Labwani with “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” even though the prosecutor had not initially included such a charge. The court ended up sentencing Labwani to 12 years in jail under a charge that was added at the request of National Security.
Background on the ‘Damascus Declaration’ and Syria’s crackdown on critics
The Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (“Damascus Declaration”) is a coalition of political parties and independent Syrian activists created in October 2005. It consists of individuals and groups from different political backgrounds (Arab Nationalists, Kurds, liberals, leftists, Islamists) who issued a statement of principles, including the establishment of democracy in Syria, lifting of the state of emergency, protection of minority rights, release of all political prisoners, abolition of Law No. 49 (which makes membership in the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death), and upholding of international human rights standards.
The National Council was established as a follow-up body for the Damascus Declaration. On December 1, 2007, more than 163 activists from the Damascus Declaration held a meeting to elect the leadership of the National Council. They elected as president Dr. Feda’ al-Hurani, a physician and daughter of Akram al-Hurani, a prominent Syrian politician who was highly influential in Syrian politics from the beginning of the 1940s until his exile in 1963.
Starting on December 9, 2007, Syrian security services began a crackdown on individuals who attended the meeting, arresting more than 40. While they released most without charge within a few days, they kept 12 members in detention and referred them to trial. These 12 are:
1. Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician;
2. Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet;
3. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician;
4. Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer;
5. Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist;
6. Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher;
7. `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer;
8. Fayez Sarah, 58, writer and journalist;
9. Muhammad Hajji Darwish, 48, businessman;
10. Marwan al-`Ush, 52, engineer;
11. Riad Seif, 61, former member of parliament; and,
12. Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor
Article 38 of Syria’s Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to “freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression.” As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Syria has an international obligation to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly as well as the right to a fair trial.
Quotes from the defendants during their September 24 defense session
“I am not optimistic for the judgment … as I think that we are not being tried by this court, but from a power that relies on the state of emergency and the security services.”
– Riad Seif, 61, former member of parliament
“To end the state of emergency and the martial courts and to improve public freedoms – especially freedom of expression – are necessary conditions to improve the living situation of the Syrian citizen.”
– Dr. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician
“I was tried for political reasons before. But this trial is different, because it is a trial of individuals who wanted to exercise their right to express their mind.”
– Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer
“Our arrest and trial is the best indication of the authorities’ refusal of any peaceful and gradual reforms required to resolve Syria’s problems.”
– `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer
“The right to freedom of expression is a sacred right, and to give it up is to give up one’s humanity, and I defend my right and the right of any Syrian citizen in his freedom of expression.”
– Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet
“The heart of this case is whether the authorities will accept the culture of dialogue and recognize different opinions.”
– Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher
“It is difficult today to judge someone for his thoughts after democracy has become the way to determine people’s opinions and ideas.”
– Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist
“Getting into the details of my defense is useless, but I will ask: what is the basis of the accusations?”
– Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician
“This is a trial of thoughts and concepts more than a trial of individuals. I don’t see that this court is trying me – rather it is trying every free mind in this country.”
– Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor
“Even though I know that the court is not neutral, I say: any judgment is akin to a medal on my chest that I gift to my sons. Therefore I do not ask for clemency but for justice.”
– Muhammad Hajji Darwish, 48, businessman