DAMASCUS // Civil liberties campaigners in Syria say the recent jailing of an elderly human rights lawyer is a clear message that, despite on-going domestic reforms, political dissent will not be tolerated.
Haitham al Maleh, 79, was sentenced to three months in prison on July 4 after being convicted of "weakening national morale", an offence under extra-constitutional emergency laws introduced in 1963. Both the length of the sentence and the decision to prosecute al Maleh, a former judge, surprised many Syrian civil society activists. And that, they believe, was precisely the purpose. "This is a good example that old age doesn't mean you are going to be exempted from these things," said Ammar al Qurabi, of the National Organisation of Human Rights in Syria. "For a time, before he was arrested [in October 2009], there were civil society people here who thought he was untouchable, that he was a red line. They had the idea that because of his age and his position he would be left alone.
"We have now all been shown there is no red line, there is no protective umbrella that shelters anyone." Al Maleh spent six years as a political prisoner in the 1980s and was awarded the Dutch Geuzen Medal in 2006, a human rights prize named after resistance fighters who fought against the Nazis. He enjoyed a comparatively high profile in Damascus, although, like all civil liberties campaigners here, could not claim anything remotely approaching a popular following.
Syrian civil rights groups are notoriously divided and weak. Al Maleh was, however, respected by foreign embassies, something that has proved to be of little benefit to his current situation, with numerous international calls for his release ignored. Syria has, of late, enjoyed renewed contacts with the West after years of diplomatic isolation. There had been hopes this rapprochement would bring about reduced scrutiny of domestic civil-rights activists, as part of a wider programme of economic liberalisation and a recent decision by the authorities to more fully embrace non-governmental organisations.
That hope has not yet materialised, civil society campaigners and foreign diplomats say, although there remains a possibility that a new political parties law will be introduced this year, potentially legalising opposition groups. Damascus adheres to a strict insistence on sovereignty over its internal affairs and is adamant that only those who have been judged by what it says is an independent judiciary are jailed, and always in accordance with national laws.
Syria denies holding any political prisoners and says the emergency laws are necessary because the country remains in a state of war with Israel over the latter's occupation of the Golan Heights, and continues to face a threat from domestic Islamist militants. Since June a number of civil society activists, jailed three years ago, have been released on completion of their prison terms. At the same time, detentions and prosecutions continue, with the human rights lawyer Muhannad al Hassani sentenced to three years shortly before al Maleh on the same charges. " Mazen Darwich, a civil-society campaigner, said: "The three-year sentence [for al Hassani] was a shock, and we take it as a clear message that no one can be away from the possibility of arres.
"We cannot say this is a message aimed at the West telling them to stay out of Syria's internal business. Syria has always been consistent on that. It doesn't link domestic issues to foreign policy. This is a message to us, here." Mr Darwich said he "wanted to be optimistic" that al Maleh would be pardoned on grounds of his age and ailing health. Al Maleh's colleagues say they fear he will not survive if kept in prison until October 2012.
Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, routinely issues pardons to prisoners on health grounds. Underlining the fact that no one deemed to be threatening the integrity of the state is beyond censure, human rights groups say a blogger, Tull al Melowhe, 16, remains in detention on unspecified charges. "You can be 16 years old or 79 years old, it doesn't matter, if you are seen to step out of line you can be called on it," Mr al Qurabi said. "In fact, you'd be wrong to think that there is any lower or upper age limit.
"It is a clear message that nothing anyone says or writes is missed, and none of it is forgotten. It is a message we all understand." @Email:email@example.com