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Syria should end the trial of human rights activist Kamal al-Labwani by releasing him and dismissing the politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Pending Labwani’s release, the Syrian authorities should also take immediate steps to improve his conditions of detention.

Labwani is due back in court on April 10 when the First Damascus Criminal Court is expected to issue its verdict. Syrian security forces arrested Labwani on November 8, 2005 upon his return from a two-month trip to Europe and the United States where he met with government officials, journalists, and human rights organizations. He also appeared on Al-Mustaqilla and Al-Hurra television, calling upon the Syrian government to respect fundamental freedoms and human rights.

“Labwani is on trial for his political views,” said Fadi Al-Qadi, Middle East advocate at Human Rights Watch. “His only crime is that he called for peaceful democratic change in the way Syria is governed.”

The General Prosecutor’s office initially charged Labwani with “weakening national sentiment,” “inciting sectarian strife,” “damaging the nation’s image,” and “spreading false or exaggerated information.” However, the head of the office of National Security sent a letter on November 17, 2005 to the Minister of Justice asking him to add the charge of “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria.” This charge carries with it a potential life sentence with hard labor, and could lead to the death penalty if the foreign country is deemed to have initiated aggression. On March 12, 2006, the prosecutor added this new and more serious charge.

During their defense submission, Labwani’s lawyers argued that their client was being prosecuted for the peaceful expression of his opinions. They also countered the accusation that Labwani was “inciting aggression against Syria” by referring to almost 30 segments from the televised interviews on Al-Mustaqilla and Al-Hurra, where Labwani directly opposed the use of aggression against Syria.

“Labwani’s lawyers have made a robust defense, but we fear the verdict may be politically predetermined,” Al-Qadi said.

Syria has a long record of prosecuting political activists for peacefully expressing their opinions. Already in 2002, the State Security Court sentenced Labwani to three years in prison on charges of “inciting rebellion, spreading false information and weakening national unity” after he had participated in political reform discussions.

“Syria’s prosecution of Labwani and other political activists violates not only international human rights law, but also Syria’s own constitution,” Al-Qadi said.

Article 38 of Syria’s Constitution guarantees the right of every citizen to “freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression” and to “participate in supervision and constructive criticism in a manner that safeguards the soundness of the domestic and nationalist structure and strengthens the socialist system.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Syria is a state party, guarantees that: “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference,” and, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.”

For the last few weeks Labwani has also been held in degrading and potentially inhuman conditions of detention. On March 21, 2007, two days after Labwani submitted his defense in which he criticized the proceedings against him, prison officials moved him from a shared cell to a dirty solitary cell where he reportedly stayed until April 5, when he was moved back to the shared cell. Recent visitors to Labwani reported that he looked “very tired and yellow” and that he had lost about 10 kilos. During his solitary detention, he was denied access to soap and has consequently contracted skin diseases.

This is not the first time that Labwani has been the victim of abuse while in detention. Since the onset of his detention, Labwani has been held in a prison cell with convicted criminals. On November 1, 2006, prison guards stood by as one of Labwani’s cellmates verbally and physically assaulted him. Immediately after the incident, Labwani’s lawyers filed a complaint with the prison authorities requesting that Labwani be relocated to a different cell. But prison authorities refused to accede to the request or take any redress against his attacker.

“Syrian authorities should immediately improve the conditions of detention for Labwani and all imprisoned political activists,” Al-Qadi said. “They shouldn’t be exposed to abuse from prison officials or other prisoners.”

Article 10 of the ICCPR requires states to guarantee that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person” and that “accused persons shall, save in exceptional circumstances, be segregated from convicted persons and shall be subject to separate treatment appropriate to their status as unconvicted persons.”

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