Syria should immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Ahmad Tohme, Jabr al-Shoufi, Akram al-Bunni, Dr. Fida’ al-Hurani, and `Ali al-Abdallah from detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities detained the five political activists following a meeting of opposition groups in Damascus last week.

State Security officers arrested the five as part of a countrywide crackdown that began on December 9 against people attending the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, a December 1 gathering of numerous opposition groups and activists calling for democratic reforms in Syria.

“The Syrian government claims that it wants to engage with the outside world, but its only engagement with peaceful critics inside the country is with the boot of repression,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Calling for democratic and peaceful change should not be treated as a criminal offense.”

More than 163 Syrians associated with the National Council of the Damascus Declaration met on December 1 to elect a new executive committee. On December 9, State Security detained over 30 of those who attended, including Dr. Ahmad Tohme and Jabr al-Shoufi, two leaders of the movement. While most activists were released a few hours later, the authorities kept Tohme and al-Shoufi in detention.

State Security officials have continued to harass members of the opposition coalition since then, arresting Akram al-Bunni on December 11, Fida’ al-Hurani on December 16, and `Ali al-Abdallah on December 17. Al-Bunni, a former political prisoner during Hafez al-Assad’s rule, is the brother of prominent lawyer and rights activist Anwar al-Bunni, who in April was sentenced to five years in jail for “spreading false news” when he made a statement that a man had died in a Syrian jail from the inhumane conditions under which he had been held. Al-Hurani is a medical doctor who was elected president of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change when the group met on December 1. The group chose al-Abdallah, a former political prisoner who already served three separate prison terms for his activism, to be on its executive committee.

All five of the activists remain in custody although the authorities have brought no charges against them yet. The Syrian authorities provided no explanation for the arrests or their continued detention.

“Real domestic political reforms have to be part of any opening up by the authorities in Damascus,” Whitson said. “A crucial first step would be to stop arresting peaceful political activists and release all those now in detention.”