Syria should immediately release writers and activists detained solely for expressing their opinions or reporting information online, Human Rights Watch said today. Syrian authorities have held two men in incommunicado detention since June for expressing online views that are critical of the Syrian government. Authorities have refused to disclose the whereabouts of the detained men to their families. On September 23, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced a third man to two years in prison for posting online comments that displeased the authorities.
“The fact that Syria arrests people solely because they criticize the state speaks volumes about the government’s utter disregard for the most basic human rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Even worse, Syrian intelligence has the nasty habit of not telling families where their loved ones are being detained – in effect, disappearing them for periods of time.”
On June 7, the Mantaqa Branch of Military Intelligence detained Karim `Arbaji, 29, allegedly for moderating www.akhawia.net, a popular online forum for Syrian youth covering social and political issues. Persons familiar with the case told Human Rights Watch that the Mantaqa Branch may have transferred him to the Palestine Branch in Damascus, but the authorities have provided no official notification of `Arbaji’s whereabouts. On June 30, 2007, Military Intelligence in the coastal city of Tartous arrested Tarek Biasi, 22, because he “went online and insulted security services,” according to a person familiar with the case. Biasi remains in incommunicado detention, his whereabouts unknown. On September 23, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced Ali Zein al-`Abideen Mej`an to two years in prison for “undertaking acts or writing or speeches unauthorized by the government ... that spoil its ties with a foreign state” because he posted comments online attacking Saudi Arabia.
The UN General Assembly condemned “enforced disappearances” as “a grave and flagrant violation” of human rights, and defined the violation in these terms: “[P]ersons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government ... followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.” The UNGA Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance states that enforced disappearance violates the right not to be subjected to torture, and constitutes a grave threat to the right to life.
Syrian security services frequently require internet cafe owners to spy on customers that access “sensitive” sites. On December 13, 2006, Political Security arrested `Ahed al-Hindi, 23, and one of his relatives, in an internet cafe in Damascus, because al-Hindi was sending comments and information to opposition websites outside Syria. The owner of the internet cafe had filmed al-Hindi posting the comments. Al-Hindi and his relative were released on January 15, 2007.
Syrian authorities recently took measures to restrict the use of anonymous comments that many Syrian writers rely on to escape state surveillance. On July 25, 2007, the Syrian minister of communications and technology, `Amr Salem, issued a decree requiring all website owners to display “the name and e-mail of the writer of any article or comment [appearing on their site] ... clearly and in detail, under threat of warning the owner of the website, then restricting access to the website temporarily and in case the violation is repeated, permanently banning the website.” In the first documented application of the directive, the Ministry of Communications and Technology restricted access to www.damaspost.com, a popular Syrian news website, for 24 hours after a commentator identified as “Jamal” criticized the head of the Journalists’ Union and the al-Ba`ath newspaper for nepotism.
Under international law, the rights to privacy and free expression entail a corollary right to communicate anonymously. Allowing persons to speak anonymously, without fear of reprisal or stigma, encourages the sort of expression that is critical to protection of rights and a democratic society – from political pamphleteering, to anonymous tips for journalists, to “blowing the whistle” on corruption by officials or companies. While the right to anonymity is not absolute, the restrictions imposed by the Syrian decree eliminate it altogether in the name of repressing purportedly “criminal” expression.
The Syrian government blocks websites that span a range of categories. Authorities impose most substantial filtering against sites that criticize government policies or support Syrian opposition groups. Censored websites also include Arabic newspapers outside Syria that carry materials critical of the government, such as the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi (www.al-quds.co.uk) and al-Sharq al-Awsat (www.asharqalawsat.com), the Beirut-based al-Mustaqbal (www.almustaqbal.com.lb), the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Seyassah (www.alseyassah.com), as well as websites belonging to Syrian opposition or Kurdish political parties and Islamist websites. OpenNet Initiative, a partnership of four leading universities in the US, Canada and the UK, which monitors government filtration and surveillance of the internet, says that filtering of political websites in Syria is “pervasive.” The Syrian government’s censorship also covers popular websites such as Google’s blogging engine, www.blogspot.com, and www.youtube.com.
The last six years have seen an explosion of internet use in Syria, with close to 1 million of the country’s 18 million people now online, compared to just 30,000 in 2000. The Arab Advisors Group, an Amman-based business-consulting firm, projects that the number of Syrian internet users will exceed 1.7 million by 2009.
Human Rights Watch called on Syria to cease blocking websites that carry material protected by the right to free expression and access to information, and to release all those detained solely for exercising these rights, online or otherwise.
In an extensive 2005 study on online censorship in the Middle East and North Africa (http://hrw.org/reports/2005/mena1105/) Human Rights Watch found that “the Syrian government relies on a host of repressive laws and extralegal measures to suppress Syrians’ right to access and disseminate information freely online.” Among those detained in the past for posting information online are:
- `Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghuri: On February 23, 2003, Syrian secret police agents arrested `Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghuri for emailing articles copied from the Akhbar al-Sharq (Levant News) website, http://www.thisissyria.net. The government said it considered the site’s content “detrimental to the reputation and security of the nation,” and “full of ideas and views opposed to the system of government in Syria.” His captors beat and tortured al-Shaghuri and held him incommunicado at the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence in Damascus before moving him to the Sednaya military prison on the outskirts of the city. On June 20, 2004, the Security Court found him guilty, under the Press Law, of “publishing lies” and disseminating articles “that harmed the image and security of Syria.” The court sentenced him to three years in prison and then reduced the sentence to two-and-a-half years. He was released on August 31, 2005.
- Yahya al-Ous and the Qutaish Brothers: In September 2002 two construction workers were reportedly killed while digging a tunnel in Damascus. Over the course of the following few weeks, Haytham Qutaish, his brother Muhannad, and Yahya al-Ous were arrested for sending emails to a Gulf-based newspaper about the incident. They had previously sent articles criticizing the Syrian government’s economic, political, and human rights policies and government corruption. Syrian Military Intelligence held them in Sednaya prison for nearly two years before the Supreme State Security Court found the three guilty, on July 25, 2004, of “receiving secret information on behalf of a foreign state which threatens the security of Syria” and using the internet to publish “false news outside of Syria” under the terms of the Press Law. The court found the Qutaish brothers guilty of “encouraging the transfer of secret information.” The court further found Haytham Qutaish guilty of “writing that threatens the security of Syria and her relations with foreign states.” The court sentenced Haytham Qutaish and his brother Muhannad to four and three years in prison, respectively. They were released on November 4, 2005. Al-Ous spent two years in prison before being released.
- Mas`ud Hamid: On June 25, 2003, police violently dispersed a demonstration of Syrian-Kurdish children in front of the Damascus office of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Mas`ud Hamid, a Kurdish-Syrian journalism student, posted photographs of the event on several websites, including the German-based Kurdish website http://www.amude.com. One month later, on July 24, 2003, Public Security officers arrested Hamid as he was taking an exam. Witnesses told Reporters sans frontières that the manner of his arrest, in which he was handcuffed in front of a room full of students, seemed intended to intimidate the future journalists. The authorities held him in solitary confinement in `Adra prison for one year before allowing him monthly visits from his lawyer and family. Interrogators reportedly tortured him on several occasions and beat him with a studded whip on the soles of his feet. On October 10, 2004, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced Hamid to three years in prison after finding him guilty of “membership of a secret organization” and having “attempted to annex part of Syrian territory to another country” – charges frequently leveled against detained Syrian Kurds. Hamid was released from `Adra prison on July 24, 2006.
- Habib Salih: On May 29, 2005, Military Intelligence officers arrested Habib Salih in Tartus, approximately 100 miles (130 kilometers) north of Damascus, for posting on two websites a series of open letters addressed to the delegates attending the June 2005 Ba`ath Party Conference in which he detailed his prison experiences. In the months since his release, he had also written critical articles for the Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar and the banned website http://www.elaph.com. He was sentenced to three years on August 15, 2006 by the Tartus Criminal Court for “spreading false news that weaken the spirit of the nation.” He was released on September 12, 2007.