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Syria: Economist Freed as Crackdown Goes on

Government Should Release All Jailed for Peaceful Dissent

Syria’s release of prominent activist `Aref Dalila on August 7, 2008, after seven years in detention, is welcome, but the government should also free dozens more detainees being held for nonviolent political activities, Human Rights Watch said today.

In July 2002, Syria’s Supreme State Security Court, a special court with almost no due process protections, sentenced Dalila, a prominent economics professor and a vocal proponent of political liberalization, to a 10-year prison term for criticizing government policies in articles and remarks. The authorities held Dalila in solitary confinement, and his health deteriorated sharply in 2006 following a stroke.

“Like the dozens of other jailed Syrian activists, `Aref Dalila should never have been arrested in the first place,” said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “He’s finally free, but far too many others languish in Syria’s prisons just because they criticized the government.”

Dalila repeatedly criticized corruption in the government and was an active participant in the informal discussion groups that sprang up in the brief period of openness in 2001 known as the “Damascus Spring.” He is the last of a prominent group of 10 activists detained in a 2001 crackdown to be released.

Syrian authorities continue to arrest, prosecute, imprison, and harass political and human rights activists. Four of the activists detained with Dalila in 2001 and subsequently released were recently detained again for their peaceful opposition activities. Kamal Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, was sentenced in May 2007 to 12 years in prison after he traveled in 2005 to the United States and Europe and met with government officials, journalists, and human rights organizations. Riad Seif, a former member of parliament, and Walid al-Bunni, a physician, were detained after attending a meeting of opposition and pro-democracy groups in December 2007. They currently face trial on vaguely defined security charges, such as “weakening national sentiment and awakening sectarian strife.” On May 7, 2008, authorities detained Habib Saleh, a writer and political analyst, after he wrote articles critical of the government. He also faces charges of “weakening national sentiment.”

“Syria needs to stop its revolving-door detention policy, of arresting an activist each time another is released,” Stork said. “It’s time for President Bashar al-Asad to recognize the right of Syrians to criticize his policies.”

Dalila’s release comes as Western countries are engaging with Syria diplomatically. Asad was in Paris in July to attend a highly-publicized Euro-Mediterranean summit, while the number of foreign diplomats visiting Damascus has increased recently. The President of the European Parliament Hans-Gert Pottering is expected in the Syrian capital on August 9.

“We urge Syria’s international partners, especially the European Union, to demand the unconditional release of all peaceful activists,” Stork said.

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