(New York) - The Syrian government should reveal the fate of the prominent lawyer and rights activist Haytham al-Maleh, 78, who disappeared on October 14, 2009,and should release him immediately and unconditionally if it is detaining him, Human Rights Watch said today.
Three Syrian human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that they believe that Political Security is detaining him. Two said they believe that the reason for his arrest is a phone interview that aired on October 12 on an opposition television station, Barada TV, in which he criticized the Syrian authorities for their ongoing repression of freedom of expression.
"Given Syria's usual response to criticism, it would come as no surprise if they have ‘disappeared' this 78-year-old human rights activist for no other reason than a television interview," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "If the government is holding him, they should say so and release him."
On October 13, Political Security, one of Syria's multiple intelligence services, summoned al-Maleh for interrogation, but he refused to comply. He left his house the next morning and has not returned. When friends tried to reach him on his cell phone around 12:30 p.m. it was turned off. His relatives and friends have been unable to obtain any information on al-Maleh's whereabouts.
Al-Maleh is one of Syria's most prominent lawyers and human rights activists. He was imprisoned from 1980 to 1987 for his activities in the Freedom and Human Rights Committee of the Syrian Lawyers Union, the local bar association. In 2001, he co-founded the Human Rights Association in Syria, an unlicensed human rights group. In 2006, the Dutch government awarded him the Geuzen Medal for his "courageous fight for human rights," but the Syrian government did not allow him to travel to the Netherlands to receive the prize in person.
Syria has a long and persistent record of jailing people who express views critical of the government, on the basis of laws that broadly restrict free speech. Most recently, on July 28, State Security, another intelligence service, detained Muhannad al-Hasani, 42, the president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Swasiah). Two days later, an investigative judge charged al-Hasani with "weakening national sentiment" and "spreading false or exaggerated information." He is in jail awaiting trial.
"Syria is busy welcoming foreign diplomats and talking about peace and development, but to its internal critics, it only unfurls the prison mat," Whitson said.