Syrian activist jailed for three years

Syrian writer Habib Saleh was sentenced to three years in prison on Sunday for criticizing the country’s government in a series of articles published on the internet.

Amnesty International considers him to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for peacefully expressing his political views, and has called for his immediate and unconditional release.

The charges against Habib Saleh were related to several articles on domestic political issues that he had written and published online. He had criticized policies of the Syrian government and expressed support for a prominent opposition figure, Riad al-Turk.

The 61-year-old was found guilty of “weakening national sentiments” (Article 285 of the Penal Code) and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country” (Article 286). The court dropped other charges against him.

The pro-reform activist had been arrested in Tartus, a town on Syria’s western coast, on 7 May 2008 and was held in incommunicado detention for three months before being brought to trial.

He has already been imprisoned twice this decade, from 2001 to 2004 and from 2005 to 2007. Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience on both occasions.

Habib Saleh, also a translator and former businessman, was the founder of the Tartus branch of the National Dialogue Forum, an unauthorized discussion group.

He was one of 10 key pro-reform activists detained from September 2001 at the end of the so-called Damascus Spring, a brief period of increased tolerance by the Syrian authorities for freedom of expression.

He had published articles on the internet which accused the Syrian government of “corruption”, “tyranny” and a lack of respect for human rights. He was convicted, after an unfair trial, of “inciting racial and sectarian strife”.

Eight months after his release, he was re-arrested and handed three years’ imprisonment for “weakening nationalist sentiments” and “spreading false news”. The charges again related to articles critical of the Syrian authorities that he had published on the internet. He was released in September 2007.

Freedom of expression in Syria is tightly controlled by the authorities. Individuals who express dissenting views run a high risk of being arrested by the security forces, which have sweeping powers of arrest and detention. The criminal, military and state security courts widely interpret loosely defined articles of the Penal Code and frequently hand down severe prison terms to suspected opponents of the state.