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Human Rights Watch called on President Hafez al-Assad of Syria to release on humanitarian grounds a 37- year-old human rights activist serving a ten year sentence in solitary confinement in Damascus.

"Nizar Nayouf's medical situation appears to be critical and he should not have to endure any more punishment," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Syria is the only country in the Middle East and North Africa where human rights activists are serving lengthy prison terms. They all should be released."

Since last year, reports have reached international organizations that Nayouf is suffering from Hodgkin's disease, a potentially deadly form of cancer. Syrian authorities deny that Nayouf has the disease, and will not permit an independent medical delegation to visit him. Arab and international rights groups have campaigned for over a year for Nayouf's release because of his medical condition.

Human Rights Watch's letter was prompted by a recent report that Nayouf's disease had returned after apparent remission earlier this year, and that chemotherapy was now necessary to prolong his life.

In addition to Nayouf, four other activists --Bassam al-Shaykh, teacher Muhamed Ali Habib, and law students Afif Muzhir and Thabet Murad -- are serving sentences of eight and nine years imposed by the supreme state security court following an unfair trial in 1992.

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