The convictions on July 31 of two more Syrian political activists is another sign that the government of Bashar al-Asad is intent on stifling independent voices and moving backwards on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.
New York, August 2, 2002) The convictions on July 31 of two more Syrian political activists is another sign that the government of Bashar al-Asad is intent on stifling independent voices and moving backwards on freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on President Asad to unconditionally release Dalila and Bunni, as well as eight others who were arrested as part of a clampdown in August and September 2001.
"Instead of fulfilling public expectations of more space for political debate, the government is closing it down," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The imprisonment of Syria's peaceful political critics is disgraceful."
Professor Dalila and Dr. al-Bunni were both found guilty on three counts: attempting to change the constitution by illegal means, inciting armed rebellion, and spreading false information, according to a defense lawyer. Each count carried a separate prison term but the sentences reportedly will be served concurrently, not consecutively.
Since August 2001, the government has arrested ten outspoken advocates of political reform, including individuals involved in organizing the independent civic forums that became popular throughout the country after the death of president Hafez al-Asad in 2000.
Four of those arrested were tried and sentenced earlier this year: members of parliament Mamoun Homsi and Riad al-Seif, to five years imprisonment, in March and April, respectively; veteran political activist Riad al-Turk, to thirty months in June; and human rights activist Habib Saleh, to three years, also in June. Homsi and Seif were tried in the Damascus criminal court. The others were prosecuted in the state security court. The court's procedures do not meet international fair-trial standards and its judgments cannot be appealed. The parliamentarians' convictions were upheld on appeal.
"Syrian activists are only trying to voice their opinions and create independent institutions in a landscape devastated by decades of repression," Megally said. "These trials and harsh sentences send an intimidating message to others wishing to exercise basic rights such as freedom of expression and association." He urged President Bashar al-Asad to release unconditionally all ten activists and take immediate steps to de-criminalize peaceful political expression.
Aref Dalila, 59, has been held in solitary confinement since early May and not permitted to leave his cell, according to information Human Rights Watch received on July 17. He has thrombosis in his left leg, a condition that developed 10 years ago and required an operation six years ago, and has used anti-coagulant medication ever since. Professor Dalila currently suffers from inflammation of his back, which may be explained by the dampness of his cell and his prolonged confinement there.
Dr. Walid al-Bunni, born in 1964, is an ear, nose and throat specialist. He is married and the father of three children. He has also been held in solitary confinement since early May.