Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should immediately exonerate prominent human rights activist Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, who was sentenced today to 12 years in prison including hard labor on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said.
A Damascus criminal court convicted Labwani of “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria.” Labwani had visited the United States and Europe in the fall of 2005 where he had met with government officials, journalists and human rights organizations.
Labwani’s sentence was handed down two weeks after another prominent Syrian human rights activists, Anwar al-Bunni, was sentenced to five years in prison on politically motivated charges.
“The Syrian government has accelerated its crackdown on free speech and peaceful activism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Peaceful activists like Labwani are paying a heavy price for expressing their views.”
Syrian security forces arrested Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, on November 8, 2005 upon his return from a two-month trip to Europe and the United States. During his trip, he appeared on the pan-Arab Al-Mustaqilla and Al-Hurra television networks where he called on the Syrian government to respect fundamental freedoms and human rights.
The Democratic Liberal Gathering is a group of Syrian intellectuals and activists who advocate for peaceful change in Syria based on democratic reforms, liberalism, secularism and respect for human rights.
From the onset, Labwani’s trial was marred by the interference of the state security agencies. The prosecution added the charge of “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria” after the head of National Security sent a letter on November 17, 2005 to the Minister of Justice asking him to add this accusation to the lesser charges that the General Prosecutor’s office had initially filed against Labwani. In his defense pleadings, Labwani’s attorney referred to the letter and argued that the new charge would not have been included if National Security had not intervened because the investigation had not revealed any evidence that Labwani had called on any country to initiate aggression against Syria.
On April 28, following al-Bunni’s conviction, Labwani and other imprisoned political and human rights activists smuggled out a joint letter which said that detainees in Syria “should feel that they are not alone... and that there is hope for a peaceful resolution of the crisis of freedoms and human rights in Syria.”
“Syrian officials repeatedly claim that their country wants to play a constructive role in the region,” Whitson said. “But this is hard to believe as they continue to imprison peaceful dissidents at home.”
Syria has a long record of prosecuting political activists who peacefully express their opinions. 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. Labwani was released after serving his sentence in full.
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.” As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Syria has an international obligation to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.