Human Rights Watch is writing to bring to your urgent attention the extremely difficult circumstances faced by Nizar Nayouf, the thirty-seven-year-old writer and human rights activist who is serving a ten-year sentence in solitary confinement in Mezze military prison in Damascus.

Nayouf is one of five human rights activists who are imprisoned in Syria. All five were affiliated with the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria, a loosely organized network of young activists that authorities arrested in late 1991 and early 1992. Nayouf's colleagues -- Muhamed Ali Habib, Afif Muzhir, Bassam al-Shaykh, and Thabet Murad -- are held in Sednaya prison. All five men were sentenced in 1992 to eight to ten years by the Supreme State Security Court for membership in an unauthorized organization, among other offenses.

Human Rights Watch continues to appeal for the release of these human rights defenders, whose only apparent offense was the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association, which in their case included criticism of government policies and practices. With releases earlier this year in Algeria and Tunisia, Syria is the only country in the region where human rights activists are serving lengthy prison terms.

Among the five Syrians, Nizar Nayouf's particular situation raises humanitarian concerns. Last year, Human Rights Watch joined Arab human rights organizations and other international groups in calling for Nayouf's release on humanitarian grounds because he reportedly was suffering from Hodgkin's disease and not receiving proper medical treatment. Appeals were also made to Syrian authorities and ambassadors abroad for independent medical experts to have access to Nayouf in prison for the purpose of evaluating his health needs.

In response to this campaign, Human Rights Watch received a letter from His Excellency Walid al-Moualem, Syria's ambassador to the United States, dated December 10, 1998. In this letter, Ambassador Moualem denied that Nayouf had Hodgkin's disease and wrote: "Rather, he is suffering [from] hernia of nucleus pulposus [slipped disc]. The doctors treating him have concluded that he did not require surgery, treatment with medicines should be sufficient. His health condition has since improved." But the information that we have recently received suggests that Nizar Nayouf was in fact treated for Hodgkin's disease some time early in 1999 and that he responded well to such treatment. However, it now appears that medical tests performed in August 1999 indicated that the disease had returned in full force, and that chemotherapy treatment could prolong Nizar Nayouf's life.

Your Excellency, Human Rights Watch cannot independently confirm this information, which is why we are writing to appeal to you to intervene in this case and ensure that Nayouf is immediately released and is able to receive the medical attention and treatment that he requires.

We hope that as an urgent matter you will direct responsible authorities to make inquiries about the continuing reports that Nizar Nayouf is suffering from Hodgkin's disease and that chemotherapy now may be required to save and prolong his life. Human Rights Watch also respectfully reiterates our earlier recommendation to Syrian authorities that a team of independent medical professionals be permitted to visit Nayouf in prison, review his medical files, and consult with the Syrian physicians who have been providing him care and treatment. In our view, such a mission would provide reassurances to all of those around the world who remain deeply concerned about Nizar Nayouf.

We thank you in advance for your attention to this matter, and your appreciation of the humanitarian aspects of Nizar Nayouf's case.

Sincerely,

/s/

Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch
cc: General Mustafa Tlas, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense His Excellency Nasser Qaddur, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs His Excellency Walid Al-Moualem, Ambassador to the United States