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Syria should immediately release all activists arbitrarily detained for signing a petition calling for improved Syrian-Lebanese relations, Human Rights Watch said today. Those detained include prominent writer Michel Kilo and human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni.

Over the last week, officials from State Security (Amn al-Dawla) arrested 12 activists. Those arrested were among some 300 Lebanese and Syrian activists, intellectuals and human rights defenders who signed a petition on May 12 calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations based on respect for each country’s sovereignty. The declaration called on Syria to recognize Lebanon’s independence, highlighted the importance of improving economic ties on the basis of transparency, rejected attempts to impose economic sanctions on the Syrian people, and condemned attacks on Syrian workers in Lebanon.

“Arresting respected critics like Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo shows that the Syrian government has no interest in peaceful, homegrown reform,” said Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

State Security officials summoned Kilo on May 14 for questioning and failed to release him. Kilo, a journalist and a widely respected member of Syria’s domestic opposition, has frequently faced questioning by security agents in recent months, but usually only for a few hours. Three days after his arrest, he appeared before an investigating judge who charged him with “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news that can affect the standing of the state,” among other things.

On May 16, State Security arrested two other human rights activists who had signed the petition: Nidal Darwish, a member of the board at the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria; and Mahmud Mer’i, secretary of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria.

The following day, State Security continued its crackdown by arresting at least eight other Syrian signatories, among them Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent human rights lawyer. A witness told Human Rights Watch that he saw two men wearing civilian clothes dragging al-Bunni away as he was getting into his car outside his home in Damascus.

Syrian security agencies have frequently harassed al-Bunni in the past, and the Syrian Bar Association suspended his membership 10 days prior to his arrest, reportedly for publicizing the plight of his dissident clients. Al-Bunni had been slated to run the first center for human rights training in Syria but the authorities shut down the center, to be funded by the European Union, before it became operational.

The other seven signatories arrested on May 17 were: Suleiman Shummor, a member of the political bureau of the Worker’s Revolutionary Party and a leader of the National Democratic Gathering; Ghalem Amer, a board member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria; Mahmud al-‘Issa, a former prisoner sentenced for membership in the Communist Workers Party; Khalil Hussein, a member of the Kurdish Future movement who had previously spent 12 years in prison for membership in the Communist Workers Party; Safwan Tayfur, an activist; Abbas Abbas, an activist from the town of Musiaf ; and Khaled Khalifa, who was reportedly arrested on the basis of mistaken identity.

On May 18, agents from State Security arrested yet another signatory, Muhammad Mahfud, a member of the Jamal Atassi political discussion forum.

Syrian human rights defenders told Human Rights Watch that with the exception of Abbas and Khalifa, who were released one day after their arrest, the other 10 remain in detention at the ‘Adra central prison near Damascus. Eight of them were referred to the investigating judge yesterday, but five refused to be interrogated because the authorities did not allow them to have their lawyers present. Interrogation of the other three reportedly centered on the declaration.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian authorities to end their harassment and persecution of human rights defenders and activists and to release immediately and unconditionally the 10 who remain in detention for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association.

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