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Syria: Free Prominent Rights Lawyer

Muhanad al-Hasani Detained for Monitoring Trials, Defending Political Activists

(New York) - The Syrian government should free the lawyer and rights activist Muhanad al-Hasani immediately and unconditionally, Human Rights Watch said today.

State Security, one of Syria's multiple intelligence services, detained al-Hasani on July 28, 2009, and an investigating judge charged him two days later with "weakening national sentiment" and "spreading false or exaggerated information." Information obtained by Human Rights Watch overwhelmingly suggests that al-Hasani's arrest and charge are due to his human rights work, particularly his monitoring of the State Security Court.

"It is Syria's repressive practices, not al-Hasani, that's weakening national sentiment," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "President Assad should order al-Hasani's release, along with freeing other Syrian activists who are paying a steep price just for exercising their basic civil rights."

A lawyer who spoke to al-Hasani in jail said that his interrogation session by State Security before his detention focused on his human rights work, especially his reporting on the State Security Court, a special court that exists outside the ordinary criminal justice system. Al-Hasani is reported to be in good health but, the lawyer said, security officials off shaved his hair and made him sleep on the floor. He is being held in `Adra prison, on the outskirts of Damascus.

Al-Hasani, 42, is president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Swasiah). He regularly defends activists and political detainees and is a leading monitor of the State Security Court. In the last three years, Syrian security services have frequently prevented him from leaving Syria because of his human rights activities.

The latest round of official harassment of al-Hasani began on July 19, while he was monitoring trials at the State Security Court. During a coffee break, a security man approached him and took his notebook. He then tore out the pages on which al-Hasani had written his trial observations. After al-Hasani complained to the president of the State Security Court, the security officer stated that he had acted at the request of Habib Nejmeh, the head of the prosecutor's office at the State Security Court. Nejmeh, who was present when the officer was questioned, confirmed that he had asked the guard to do so and accused al-Hasani of "revealing secrets and committing felonies." Under Syrian law, proceedings of the State Security Court are public.

Four days later, on July 23, a high-level security official contacted al-Hasani and summoned him for interrogation. After multiple questioning sessions on July 26 and 27, State Security detained him on July 28.

"Syria should dissolve the State Security Court instead of trying to silence those who criticize it," Whitson said.

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