Western countries looking to increase engagement with Syria should know that Syrian authorities continue to arrest, try, and harass political and human rights activists, Human Rights Watch said today. In May 2008, Syrian authorities detained a political writer, began the trial of two activists, and restricted the travel of at least seven others. Amidst increasing calls in Western countries to increase engagement with Syria, Human Rights Watch urged that an improvement in the treatment of these activists be at the heart of any future talks with the Syrian authorities.
The French daily Le Monde reported on June 9, 2008, that President Nicholas Sarkozy of France plans to send two senior envoys, Jean-David Lévitte and Claude Guéant, to Syria as early as June 12, as ties suspended last year over Lebanon’s political crisis start to thaw. Last week, US senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel co-wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for increased engagement with Syria following “the recent announcement of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria through Turkey, and the agreement between the Lebanese factions in Qatar.”
“Any engagement with Syria must include an open discussion of human rights concerns, including the fate of political prisoners and other Syrians who suffer abuse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa director. “The authorities in Damascus are still harassing anyone who dares criticize them.”
On May 7, members from Syria’s security services arrested Habib Saleh, 60, a writer and political analyst, and took him to an undisclosed location where he remains in incommunicado detention. Saleh had written articles critical of the Syrian regime, including an article defending Syrian opposition figure Riad al-Turk. Saleh has already been jailed twice in the past for his writings.
A few days later, on May 11, the State Security Court, a special court with almost no due process protections, issued a three-year sentence against Tarek Biasi, 23, a blogger whom the government detained in July 2007 accusing him of “insulting security services” online, and charging him with “weakening national sentiment.”
On May 12, a military court began the trial of Muhammad Badi` Dek al-Bab, a member of the National Organization for Human Rights, on the charge of “spreading false information that harms the prestige of the state” because he wrote an article criticizing the Syrian authorities for detaining writers and intellectuals while celebrating Damascus as the 2008 “Arab Capital of Culture.” He has been in detention since March 2, and his next trial hearing is scheduled for June 11. Dek al-Bab has previously been jailed for his activities. In 2000, he was sentenced to 15 years on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, but was released in 2005 following a presidential amnesty.
Meanwhile, a group of 13 notable political activists, including former parliamentarian Riad Seif, remain in detention following their arrest in December 2007 for attending a meeting of opposition groups. They are awaiting their trial on charges of “weakening national sentiment and awakening sectarian strife,” “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country,” and “membership in an organization formed with the purpose of changing the structure of the state.”
“These activists are in jail because they dared to express their opinions,” said Whitson. “We hope that Western diplomats talking to Syria will show the same courage and tell the Syrian authorities that they need to release these activists.”
Syrian authorities also continue to restrict hundreds of activists from leaving the country. Seven political and human rights activists were directly affected by these restrictions in May. For example, the authorities barred Muhannad al-Hasani, president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, from traveling to Beirut on May 21 to participate in a show on the al-`Alam TV channel to discuss the situation of Syrian detainees in Saudi Arabia. They also prevented Radif Mustafa, the chairperson of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights, from traveling to Paris to participate in a workshop organized by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network from May 19-23.
Other forms of harassment include preventing gatherings and meetings. The activist Mazen Darwish, president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, had obtained a permit from the Ministry of Culture to organize a conference on “press freedom” at the Arab Cultural Center in Damascus on May 25, but an official from the same ministry called the venue 15 minutes prior to the start of the event and ordered its cancellation.
The seven activists prevented from traveling outside Syria in May are:
- Abdel Sattar al-Qattan: previously detained for affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Released from jail for health reasons on June 12, 2007. He requires dialysis three times a week, and his doctors have recommended that he travel outside Syria to receive a kidney transplant.
- Radif Mustafa: a lawyer and chairperson of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights. Prevented from traveling to Paris to participate in a workshop organized by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network from May 19-23.
- Muhannad al-Hasani: president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization. Syrian security officials prevented him from traveling to Beirut on May 21 to participate in a show on the al-`Alam TV channel to discuss the situation of Syrian detainees in Saudi Arabia.
- Raja` al-Nasser and Muhammad Abdel Majid Manjounah: lawyers and members in the Socialist Union party. Prevented from traveling on May 8 to Yemen to participate in a workshop by the Arab National Congress
- Zaradasht Muhammad and `Abdel Rahman Ahmad: two Kurdish political activists prevented from traveling to Iraq on May 12 to meet other Iraqi Kurdish parties.