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Veteran human rights lawyer faces up to 15 years in Syrian prison

The Syrian authorities must immediately release veteran human rights lawyer Haytham al-Maleh, and drop all charges against him, Amnesty International said, as he appeared before a military judge in Damascus on Tuesday. He was charged with "conveying false news within Syria that could debilitate the morale of the nation", "weakening national sentiment" and "slandering" a governmental body. Amnesty International said that it believes these charges have been brought against him simply because he exercised his right to freedom of expression. The 78-year-old lawyer, one of Syria’s most respected human rights activists, was arrested at his office on 14 October but it was only four days later that the authorities acknowledged holding him. After his arrest, he was held incommunicado in a State Security detention centre in Kafr Sousa, Damascus. He was arrested the day after he told a Political Security, official who telephoned to tell him to report to the Political Security branch in Damascus, that he would not do so. "The action now being taken against Haytham al-Maleh is part of a longstanding pattern and reflects the Syrian authorities’ almost total intolerance of even peaceful dissent”," said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Unfortunately, rather than listening to what human rights defenders such as Haytham al-Maleh have to say, the Syrian authorities seek to stifle their criticism by arresting them and levelling charges that appear little short of ludicrous and intended to intimidate them into silence.” The charges laid against Haytham al-Maleh on Tuesday relate to his public criticism of human rights violations and official corruption in Syria including during a phone interview in September with Baradda TV, a Europe-based satellite channel opposed to the Syrian government. In the interview, he said that the Syrian authorities "have at their disposal huge resources in the form of the army, intelligence, police and arms and all means of oppression” yet “they hide behind laws which have no logical or legal or just basis", and said that Syrian security forces "commit crimes with impunity." At the time of his arrest Haytham al-Maleh was defending Muhannad al-Hassani, another human rights lawyer facing trial on charges that relate in part to his work defending the rights of political prisoners. Accusations against him include weakening national sentiment, conveying false news within Syria that could debilitate the morale of the nation and broadcasting abroad false news that could harm the reputation of the state. Like Haytham al-Maleh, Muhannad al-Hassani is a prisoner of conscience. In his case too, Amnesty International has called for his immediate and unconditional release and for the charges against him to be dropped. Haytham al-Maleh has been repeatedly harassed by the Syrian security authorities because of his human rights work. He was imprisoned from 1980 until 1986 for his work for the Freedom and Human Rights Committee of the Syrian Lawyers' Union. He was formerly head of the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS), which was established in 2001 by some 40 human rights defenders and lawyers but which has been denied legal registration, without any reasons being given, by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour. The HRAS’s appeal against the Ministry's decision has been pending before the Administrative Tribunal (Majlis al-Dawla) since 28 July 2002. Meanwhile, HRAS members continue to operate in a legal limbo and to face regular harassment and intimidation by the Syrian authorities.