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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should immediately order the release of a prominent human rights lawyer who was sentenced to five years in prison on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today.

On April 24, the First Damascus Criminal Court convicted Anwar al-Bunni for “spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation,” and ordered him to pay the equivalent of US$2,000 to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor for his membership in a unlicensed and now-closed human rights center.

The court issued the sentence on the same day that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Damascus for his first official visit to Syria.

“The Syrian government reminded the entire world, including the visiting UN Secretary-General, that it won’t allow its citizens to express themselves freely,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has no business prosecuting people like al-Bunni on charges that unlawfully restrict speech.”

Anwar al-Bunni
Anwar al-Bunni © 2006 Reuters Limited

The general prosecutor’s office charged al-Bunni with “spreading false news” in connection with a statement by al-Bunni claiming that a man had died in a Syrian jail because of the inhumane conditions under which he had been held. However, the timing and conduct of the trial indicate that it was driven by a broader desire to punish al-Bunni for his political activism and human rights work.

Officials from State Security (Amn al-Dawla) arrested al-Bunni on May 17 after he signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations based on respect for each country’s sovereignty. Since his arrest, authorities have detained him in a wing with convicted criminals at the `Adra central prison, near Damascus.

Prior to his arrest, Syrian security agencies had frequently harassed al-Bunni for representing political activists, such as Kamal al-Labwani, who is also on trial, and publicizing their plight. Al-Bunni had been slated to run the first center for human rights training in Syria, but the authorities shut down the center, which was to be funded by the European Commission, shortly after it opened in March 2006.

“Al-Bunni’s sentence comes as foreign diplomats and politicians are knocking at Syria’s door to encourage it to play a more positive role in the Middle East,” Whitson said. “They should also urge Syria to start respecting peaceful internal dissent.”

During his detention, reports emerged that al-Bunni was ill-treated. On December 31, a criminal detainee pushed al-Bunni down some stairs and then beat him on the head in the presence of prison guards who reportedly failed to intervene. A few weeks later, on January 25, prison guards made al-Bunni crawl on the ground and forcibly shaved his head as punishment during a crackdown on a ward where criminal detainees had mounted a protest after being excluded from a recent amnesty.

Al-Bunni’s sentence comes ahead of verdicts in other high-profile trials of Syrian activists. Human rights activist Kamal al-Labwani’s trial is expected to conclude on May 10. The last session in the trial of prominent journalist and writer Michel Kilo, who is charged in connection with his signature of the Beirut-Damascus declaration, was recently postponed.

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