Pro-democracy activists in Syria face 15 years in prison

Twelve pro-democracy activists, currently on trial in Syria, face up to 15 years in prison for calling for democratic reform and respect for human rights.

The activists were arrested in December 2007 and January 2008, after taking part in a meeting of the broad-based opposition coalition, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC). Tens of other participants were arrested but later released without charge.

The 12 activists are being charged with “weakening national sentiment”, “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”, joining “an organization formed with the purpose of changing the financial or social status of the state” and “inciting sectarian strife”. They are being tried before the Damascus Criminal Court and a verdict is expected on 29 October.

Trial proceedings so far have been marked by serious irregularities. The 12 activists were initially held incommunicado in Damascus by the State Security Branch for up to several weeks, during which time most have said that they were beaten and coerced into signing false “confessions”. Their access to lawyers has been restricted, while the lawyers themselves have been denied copies of the case file.

Amnesty International is among several organizations to have voiced concern over the allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, but no official investigation has been conducted by the Syrian authorities.

The organization considers all 12 to be prisoners of conscience detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to freedom of assembly and association. The organization calls for them to be released immediately and unconditionally and for all charges against them to be dropped.

The DDDNC, established in October 2005, is an unauthorized coalition of political parties, human rights organizations and pro-democracy activists. It brings together groups of different tendencies, including Arab nationalist, Islamic, Kurdish, leftist and liberal.

On 1 December 2007, around 170 members held a meeting to elect the leadership of the
DDDNC National Council; Feda’a al-Horani was elected president, while Akram al-Bunni and Ahmad To’meh were both elected to the senior position of secretary.

These three were arrested along with Dr Walid al-Bunni; Arabic literature teacher and literary critic Jabr al-Shoufi; journalist ‘Ali al-‘Abdullah; journalist and writer Fayez Sarah; Dr Yasser al-‘Eit;, People’s Democratic Party member Muhammed Haji Darwish; geological engineer Marwan al-‘Ush; former independent member of parliament Riad Seif and artist Talal Abu Dan.

The DDDNC has called on the Syrian government to suspend the state of emergency in force since 1963. The coalition has also urged the authorities to release all political prisoners; to allow the safe return of Syrian exiles; to abolish Law 49, which makes membership of the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death; and to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.