The Syrian government should immediately release from detention a spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, Dr Ammar Qurabi, Human Rights Watch said today.

Syrian security forces detained the human rights activist on March 12 upon his arrival at Damascus airport. Qurabi was returning home after a trip to Washington D.C. and Paris, where he had attended two conferences on democratic reform and human rights in Syria.

“Qurabi’s arrest is an ill-disguised effort by the Syrian authorities to punish him for his defense of human rights, and to intimidate others from peaceful activism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, and a participant at one of the conferences attended by Qurabi. “The Syrian authorities should release Qurabi immediately.”

Following his arrest at the airport, Syrian security agents transferred Qurabi to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus for interrogation. Qurabi’s family informed Human Rights Watch that he succeeded in making one phone call after his arrest to inform a friend that he was being held at the Palestine Branch. At this time, there is no information available regarding any charges against Qurabi.

The Syrian authorities persistently target and harass human rights and democracy activists and often arrest them following their return from conferences abroad promoting democracy and human rights. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which the General Assembly adopted by consensus in 1998, declares that “[f]or the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: (a) to meet or assemble peacefully […].”

“Qurabi’s arrest is yet another indication that the Syrian government has scant regard for the rights and freedoms of its citizens,” Whitson said.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to end its harassment and persecution of human rights defenders such as Qurabi.