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Syrian court sentences activists to two and a half years

A Syrian criminal court has sentenced 12 pro-democracy activists to two and a half years in prison for calling for democratic reform and respect for human rights. The activists, all of whom belong to the broad-based Syrian opposition coalition the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC), were found guilty following an unfair trial. They were convicted of "weakening national sentiment" and "broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country". The activists were arrested in December 2007 and January 2008, after taking part in a meeting of the DDDNC. Tens of other participants were arrested but later released without charge. The trial proceedings were 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 files. 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. The coalition has called on the Syrian government to suspend the state of emergency in force since 1963. It 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. Amnesty International considers all 12 activists to be prisoners of conscience who have been imprisoned for calling for democratic reform and respect for human rights. The organization will continue its campaign to secure their release.