The Syrian government should immediately free Faeq al-Mir, a leader of the leftist People’s Democratic Party, and dismiss the politically motivated charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today.

On Thursday, the First Damascus Criminal Court is expected to issue its verdict in the criminal case against al-Mir. Al-Mir is on trial for contacting Elias Atallah, the head of the Democratic Left party in Lebanon and a leader of Lebanon’s March 14 Coalition, which is known for its opposition to Syrian policies in Lebanon.

“Syria’s arrest and prosecution of Faeq al-Mir reveals the government’s intolerance for even the slightest hint of opposition,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Al-Mir faces the possibility of life in prison or even execution for phoning a Lebanese opponent of Syria’s policies there.”

Al-Mir has been in detention since December 13, 2006, when state security officers arrested him at his home in the coastal city of Latakia. Al-Mir’s arrest followed his phone call to Atallah to express condolences for the November 21, 2006 assassination of Pierre Gemayel, who was Lebanon’s minister of industry at the time. Syrian security services taped the phone call.

Last March, judicial authorities charged al-Mir with “undertaking acts that weaken national sentiment” during times of conflict and “communicating with a foreign country to incite it to initiate aggression against Syria or to provide it with the means to do so.” The last charge carries a potential life sentence with hard labor, and could lead to the death penalty if the foreign country initiated aggression.

Al-Mir’s indictment states that he “contacted enemies of the state in Lebanon including members of the March 14 group, and he knows that the ideas and direction of this group are in accordance with the American and Zionist direction which are against the national approach of the Syrian government.” The indictment accused al-Mir of expressing “support for the approach and direction of March 14” during the phone call.

Syria has a long record of prosecuting political activists for peacefully expressing their opinions. Al-Mir spent 10 years in jail for his political activism until his release in 1999.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a core human rights treaty to which Syria is a state party, guarantees that everyone shall have “the right to hold opinions without interference” and “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.”