The Syrian government should immediately release three women detained by state authorities since July 31, 2008, unless they have evidence that these women have committed criminal offenses and intend to try them for these, Human Rights Watch said today.

The women live in al-`Otayba, a village approximately 20 km east of Damascus, and are the wives of men currently detained on charges of belonging to Islamist groups that were planning violent acts.

So far, the authorities have not said why the women were detained, whether or not they intend to bring any charges against them, or where they are being held. While in the past officials have questioned and harassed wives and relatives of suspected Islamists, this is the first instance documented by Human Rights Watch where wives of Islamists have been held for more than a day.

“Being married to an Islamist or to a criminal suspect is not a crime,” said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian authorities should immediately release these women unless they have evidence that they have committed crimes.”

On July 31, State Security, one of Syria’s numerous security agencies, seized Yusra al-Husayn at her house and took her into detention. She is the wife of Jihad Diab, a detainee at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay. Four days later, State Security detained Raw`a al-Kilani from her house. Raw`a is married to Ziad al-Kilani, who was detained by Syrian Air Force Intelligence in April 2004 and is currently facing trial before the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), a special court that is exempt from standard rules of criminal procedure and evidence, on charges of membership in an association “created to change the economic or social structure of the state” through terrorist acts. Ziad is currently detained in Sednaya prison.

Around the time Raw`a was arrested, State Security also detained Bayan, the wife of Ahmad Saleh `Ali, from her house. Security services arrested Ahmad in June 2005. Authorities are presently holding him in Sednaya prison, and he is currently on trial before the SSSC on charges of membership in an association “created to change the economic or social structure of the state” through terrorist acts and for “issuing calls that weaken national sentiment or awaken racial or sectarian tensions.”

Syrian security services regularly arrest men suspected of Islamist affiliation or sympathies. Officers often subject them to torture during interrogation before referring them to trial before the SSSC, where their coerced confessions are used against them.

A major prison riot broke out on July 5, 2008 in Sednaya prison, where two of the detained women’s husbands are being held, Military police responded by opening fire on the detainees, killing an undetermined number of them. To date, the families of inmates in Sednaya have been unable to obtain any information about their relatives.