The Syrian authorities unexpectedly released Dr. Aref Dalilah on Thursday following a presidential amnesty. Dalilah is the former Dean of the Faculty of Economics of Aleppo University and was a well known prisoner of conscience in Syria.
Amnesty International has welcomed the release, noting that it is long overdue and hopes it will be followed by the release of all other prisoners of conscience in Syria.
Dalilah was arrested in September 2001 and convicted by the State Security Court of "attempting to change the constitution by illegal means" in July 2002. He served seven years of a 10-year sentence, much of it spent in solitary confinement in the political wing of ‘Adra prison, Damascus.
It is thought likely that Dalilah's release was related to his health, which deteriorated alarmingly while he was in prison.
He has suffered from a blood clot in his lung, deep-vein thrombosis, swelling of the heart and diabetes. He had a stroke in May 2006, losing some of the feeling on the left side of his body.
Dalilah has not been informed of any conditions on his release or restrictions he may face if seeking to travel outside the country for treatment.
Following his release, Dalilah said, "I am thankful for all the efforts made by everyone at Amnesty International and all those who took part in actions on my behalf. We are united in the struggle for the causes of justice and democracy. This struggle is still ongoing."
Out of the ten prominent individuals detained for their roles in the so-called "Damascus Spring", Dalilah received the longest sentence. The “Damascus Spring” describes the brief period of increased tolerance from the authorities for freedom of expression and pro-reform activities that followed Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration as President in July 2000.
However, Dalilah's release does not quite close the chapter of the Damascus Spring detentions. Kamal Labwani and Habib Saleh, two former prisoners of the Damascus Spring released before Dalilah, have been re-arrested. Labwani was sentenced to 15 years for his pro-democracy activities and Saleh is currently being tried for publishing political articles on the Internet. Hundreds of other political prisoners remain detained in Syria, including many prisoners of conscience.