France's President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech during a meeting with military officials in Paris June 17, 2008.

© 2008 Reuters

(Paris, September 2, 2008) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy should use his visit to Syria on September 3 and 4, 2008, to raise human rights concerns with President Bashar al-Asad, Human Rights Watch said today. In particular, Sarkozy should urge Asad to release activists detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. He should also ask Asad to make public all information on the violent suppression of a riot at Sednaya prison in July 2008.

Commenting on his planned visit, Sarkozy said that he rejected the idea of isolating Syria, preferring "open dialogue leading to tangible progress."  
 
"Sarkozy should push for open dialogue on many issues, including the state of emergency, arrests of activists, the events at Sednaya prison and the repression of Kurdish identity," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "If President Sarkozy seeks tangible progress he should request the immediate release of peaceful activists."  
 
Sarkozy's visit comes at a time of increased repression in Syria. Twelve activists, including Riad Seif, 61, a former member of parliament, are currently on trial for attending a meeting on December 1, 2007, of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, a gathering of numerous opposition groups. They face politically motivated charges, such as "weakening national sentiment and awakening sectarian strife" and "spreading false news which would affect the morale of the country." Their next trial session is scheduled for September 24.  
 
Two other prominent activists, Michel Kilo and Mahmud `Issa, are serving prison terms for having called in May 2006 for improved relations between Lebanon and Syria - one of Sarkozy's key policy objectives.  
 
"Michel Kilo and Mahmud `Issa are in jail for demanding the exact same thing that President Sarkozy has asked of President Asad," Whitson said.  
 
Emergency rule, imposed in 1963, remains in effect, and Syria's security services continue arbitrarily to detain people and frequently refuse to disclose their whereabouts for weeks - in effect forcibly disappearing them. Two weeks ago, on August 15, Syrian security services arrested Mash`al al-Temmo, the official spokesperson for the Kurdish Future Current in Syria, an unauthorized political party, while he was driving, and held him incommunicado for 11 days.  
 
The authorities still restrict freedom of expression, and independent press remains nonexistent in Syria. The government has extended to online outlets restrictions it has traditionally applied to print and televised media, detaining and trying a number of journalists and activists for posting information online. Karim `Arbaji, 29, the moderator of www.akhawia.net, a popular online forum for Syrian youth covering social and political issues, is currently facing trial before the State Security Court for "spreading false information that may weaken national sentiment." The Syrian government's censorship extends to popular websites, such as www.facebook.com and www.youtube.com.  
 
The authorities' control of information in Syria is reflected in the complete blackout on any information concerning the prison riot that occurred at Sednaya prison in July. On the morning of July 5, Syrian military police opened fire on inmates at the military-run prison in an attempt to quell a riot that began following an aggressive prison search.  
 
Two months after the incident, there is still no information about how the prison standoff ended, or the exact number and names of those killed and wounded. Human Rights Watch obtained the names of nine inmates who were believed killed. Syrian human rights organizations reported that as many as 25 may have been killed. The families of inmates thus far have been unable to obtain any information about their relatives.  
 
In a briefing memorandum on the human rights situation in Syria sent Sarkozy on September 1, Human Rights Watch urged the French president to inquire about the deadly shooting and to urge Asad to order an independent investigation into the police's use of lethal force at the prison and to make public immediately all information about the riot, including the names of those injured or killed.