Document - Syria: Veteran Syrian human rights defender faces prison term
2 July 2010
AI Index: MDE 24/015/2010
Syria: Veteran Syrian human rights defender faces prison term
Amnesty International has appealed to the Syrian government to release lawyer and human rights defender Haytham al-Maleh, aged 78, and to drop all charges against him.
The organization made this call ahead of the final session of Haytham al-Maleh’s trial before a military court in Damascus, scheduled for next Sunday, 4 July 2010, when he faces possible imprisonment for up to 15 years.
Amnesty International considers Haytham al-Maleh to be a prisoner of conscience detained solely for expressing his peaceful and legitimately held views, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.
Haytham al-Maleh was arrested on 14 October 2009, detained incommunicado for one week and then brought to trial before the Second Military Court in Damascus, although he is a civilian. He faces two charges, “conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation” and “weakening national sentiment”. These “catch-all” charges are commonly used by the Syrian authorities to prosecute and imprison peaceful critics and human rights activists. They carry a sentence of from three to 15 years of imprisonment on conviction.
The charges arise from an interview Haytham al-Maleh gave in September 2009 to the European-based satellite broadcaster Barada TV, in which he criticized the lack of democracy, the excessive powers wielded by security officials and official corruption in Syria and his published writings exposing human rights abuses.
He is currently being detained at Damascus Central Prison in ‘Adra, northern Damascus, where he shares an overcrowded cell with convicted criminal prisoners, although he is still on trial, and must sleep on a mattress on the floor despite his advanced years. Unsurprisingly, his health has deteriorated under these conditions and he now suffers from rheumatism in addition to the diabetes and thyroid ailment with which he entered prison. His family are allowed to visit him but their conversations are monitored by security officials.
Haytham al-Maleh’s trial, at which he has been acting in his own defence, has been marked by irregularities. He was first brought to court on 8 April 2010 but the session was adjourned as he had not been told about it in advance. He was apparently denied access to the official case file until 15 June 2010 and even then part of the trial record was omitted. Lawyers assisting his defence are reported to have been denied access to him in prison and he has been allowed only brief consultations with them in the courtroom itself.
The Second Military Court in Damascus comprises three judges, all of whom are serving military officers, and cannot be considered independent, especially as a court to try civilians. An Amnesty International observer attended the last session of Haytham al-Maleh’s trial on 28 June 2010 when the judge informed Amnesty International that access to the court session was controlled by the military prosecutor not the presiding judge.
Haytham al-Maleh is a long-standing human rights defender. He is the former head of the Human Rights Association of Syria, an independent human rights organization founded in 2001 but which was forced to close down at least partly as a result of harassment by the authorities.
He has been summoned and questioned by the security forces on numerous occasions in recent years for his human rights work. He was previously imprisoned between 1980 and 1986 for protesting against government restrictions on trade union rights and considered as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
Two other prominent human rights lawyers are currently imprisoned in Syria. On 24 April 2007 Anwar al-Bunni was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on a charge of “conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation”. On 23 June this year Muhannad al-Hassani was convicted of the same charges now being brought against Haytham al-Maleh and sentenced to three years in jail.