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Syria: Rights Activist Detained After Travel Abroad

The Syrian government should release Dr. Kamal al-Labwani from detention immediately and without condition, Human Rights Watch said today.

Syrian security forces detained the human rights activist at Damascus airport on November 8, moments after he had arrived in Syria following several months traveling in Europe and the United States, during which time he visited Human Rights Watch in Washington.

While abroad, al-Labwani met with government officials, journalists, and independent human rights organizations. In a statement faxed to foreign news agencies in Damascus, Anwar al-Bunni, a member of the Human Rights Association in Syria, said the charges against Labwani arose from his meetings with European and U.S. officials. Labwani also gave interviews with the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra television and to Al-Mustaqilla, a London-based Arabic television station run by the Tunisian political opposition.

“Labwani’s arrest is simply an effort by Syrian authorities to punish him from speaking out about the country’s terrible human rights record and to intimidate others from all manner of peaceful dissent,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “President Assad should order his release now.”

Syrian security forces holding al-Labwani in an undisclosed location, according to al-Bunni, legal counsel representing al-Labwani. Al-Labwani has been charged with belonging to a banned organization, fomenting sectarian riots, and "damaging the nation's image", al-Bunni said. Al-Bunni He added that a security official beat, threatened and insulted Labwani during his questioning. Al-Labwani is due to appear in a Syrian ordinary court.

Syrian forces previously arrested Labwani in September 2001 as a result of his participation in political reform discussions at the time. In 2002 the State Security Court sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of “inciting rebellion, spreading false information and weakening national unity.” Released in September 2004, he told Human Rights Watch that during his three years in prison, he suffered from substantial psychological torture, prolonged solitary confinement and denial of access to water.

Human rights and democracy activists are continually targeted, arrested and harassed by the Syrian government. Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian authorities to release Labwani at once and to respect the right of Syrian citizens to freely express their opinions.

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