Syrian activists want release of political prisoners

Statement made following the conviction of a well-known human-rights advocate who documented unfair trials in the country.

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DAMASCUS // Human-rights campaigners in Syria have appealed for the immediate release of all political prisoners and an end to emergency laws following the sentencing of a prominent activist to three years in jail for "spreading false information" and "weakening national sentiment". The conviction of Muhannad al Hassani in the criminal court in central Damascus on Wednesday related to his involvement in publicising a case in which a Syrian man died while in detention. Mr al Hassani had questioned the circumstances of the death, saying there were reasons to believe it had happened as a result of torture. The Syrian authorities said he had made the claim without supporting evidence and that the prisoner had died of natural causes.

Mr al Hassani is well known for being one of the few lawyers in Syria to document trials at the supreme state security court. This work had incurred the wrath of the authorities, his supporters say. He was arrested last July and refused bail for the duration of his trial. The 44-year-old Mr al Hassani was also the head of human rights monitoring organisation which, like all such groups in Syria, had never been given a licence to operate. In years of campaigning he had pushed for the abolition of the very offence he was convicted of - "weakening national morale" - which he had denounced as "medieval".

It is part of a package of offences covered by decades-old emergency laws, justified by the authorities by the continuing official state of war with Israel. Critics insist that the measure has merely become a convenient way of bypassing the constitution and quashing internal dissent. Human-rights advocates said they were disappointed but not surprised by the verdict. "During the trial we had asked for 11 witnesses, but the judge refused all of them. He said there was no need for defence witnesses," said Mazen Darwich, a human-rights campaigner and colleague of Mr al Hassani's.

Amnesty International condemned the verdict and called on the Syrian president Bashar al Assad to step in ensure the "immediate and unconditional" release of the lawyer. "Muhannad al Hassani should not have been on trial in the first place," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's director for the Middle East and North Africa. "He is a prisoner of conscience who has done no more than stand up for the human rights of those who fall foul of the Syrian authorities and expose unfair trials and other abuses."

Mr al Hassani was this month given the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, named after the first head of Amnesty International, for his work in defending Syrian political prisoners and the rule of law. On Sunday, five more Syrians - Mahmoud Azizi, Yahia Hindawi, Rabii Duba, Abdelmalek Hammuda and Omar Osman - were each sentenced to 12 years in prison after being found guilty of forming "a secret association aimed at changing the political and social character of the state", according to human rights groups. A sixth man, Rabii Issa, was given a 10-year jail term on the same charge.

The convictions were all passed at the High Security Court and related to the formation of an Islamic group, human rights campaigners said. Also on Sunday, a military court postponed proceedings in the trial of Haithem al Maleh, another well-respected human-rights lawyer accused of "spreading false news" and "weakening national morale". The case of Mr al Maleh, 79, is now due to be heard on July 4.

In addition, the Syrian authorities have detained Ali al Abdullah, a writer and political activist who completed a two-and-a-half year jail term this month for membership of the Damascus Declaration committee, a group calling for democratic reforms in Syria. On the day he was set to be released, Mr al Abdullah was ordered to go before the courts - also on charges of "spreading false news" - over an article published from jail in which he criticised the Iranian regime. He is being held in prison pending continuation of the trial at a military court.

Twelve leading signatories of the Damascus Declaration who were sentenced to prison terms are due to complete their sentences this summer. Five have been released, with another six due for release within the next four weeks, including Riad Seif, a former member of parliament. Syrian officials do not comment on court cases, but they insist the judicial system is independent and that no political prisoners are held in the country.

Foreign diplomats and human-rights campaigners had hoped that the recent ending of Syria's international isolation would ease a domestic crackdown on opposition groups and human-rights advocates.