The Syrian government has arbitrarily detained at least 12 activists who attended a meeting of opposition groups in December, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release the detained activists, dismiss all charges against them, and promptly investigate credible allegations that State Security officials beat at least eight of the activists during interrogation.
The 12, including former member of parliament Riad Seif, have been detained as part of a government crackdown against individuals who attended a December 1 meeting of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change (NCDD), an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups.
On January 28, the third investigative judge in Damascus, Muhammad Subhi al-Sa`ur, referred 11 of the detainees to prosecutors on politically motivated charges of “weakening national sentiment,” “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country,” “membership in an organization formed with the purpose of changing the structure of the state,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and “joining a secret association.”
“The Syrian authorities are treating these activists like criminals simply because they called for democratic and peaceful change,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Eight of the 11 told the investigative judge that State Security officials beat them during their interrogation and forced them to sign confessions that they planned to take money from foreign countries in order to divide the country by giving the Kurds a separate state. The detainees’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the activists told the investigative judge in their judicial questioning how they were punched in the face, kicked, and slapped by State Security officials.
One detainee, `Ali al-Abdullah, was transferred on January 28 to a medical examiner to check his complaint that interrogators had injured his ear. The doctor declined to issue a report, saying that he was not a specialist in ear injuries. No investigation was reportedly opened in the allegations of ill-treatment. The detainees’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the investigative judge did not respond to their request to receive a copy of the interrogation that he conducted with the detainees.
The authorities are currently holding 10 of the detainees, including Riad Seif, in `Adra prison with common criminals. Fida’ al-Hurani, the only woman in the group and the recently elected president of the NCDD, is in the women’s jail in Duma, near Damascus. The 12th and latest activist to be detained, Talal Abu Dan, an artist and sculptor from Aleppo, has remained in the custody of State Security since he was called in for interrogation on January 30.
Since the activists’ referral to jails in `Adra and Duma, their relatives have been able to visit the activists. Conditions of detention are harsh: prison authorities do not provide mattresses, and many of the activists are still wearing the same clothes since their arrest in December. According to relatives, they are allowed to pass money to the activists but no clothes. Lawyers that have seen the detainees told Human Rights Watch that some looked “weak and tired.” Riad Seif, who suffers from prostate cancer and has a heart condition, was forced to sleep with a single blanket in the general hall of the prison, exposed to cold weather.
“Syrian prison authorities are mistreating these activists,” said Stork. “These people should not be in prison in the first place.”
The government crackdown began on December 9 when State Security, one of Syria’s multiple security agencies, began arresting some of the 163 activists that attended the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change (NCDD). A total of 40 NCDD members have been arrested and 12 remain in detention. The 12 who remain in detention are:
1. Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician
2. Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet
3. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician
4. Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer
5. Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist
6. Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher
7. `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer
8. Fayez Sarah, 58, writer and journalist
9. Muhammad Hajj Darwish, 48, businessman
10. Marwan al-`Ush, 52, engineer
11. Riad Seif, 61,former member of parliament
12. Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor