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Syrian woman arrested after writing politically charged novel

Amnesty International has called for the release of a Syrian writer who was arrested last week after she wrote a novel that describes the political situation in the country during the 1990s.Raghdah Hassan has been held incommunicado since she was seized on the Syrian side of the Al ‘Arida border crossing with Lebanon on 10 February. She is at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.Her unpublished first and only novel, The New Prophets, tackles political issues through a love story involving two Syrian prisoners.Three days after Hassan’s arrest, her currently unoccupied flat was ransacked and a paper print-out of the novel was confiscated. Several opposition political publications were also taken in the search, thought to have been carried out by Syrian security forces."We suspect that Raghdah’s arrest is related to her intention to publish a novel about sensitive political issues, as well as to suspicions that she is active in an opposition party," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.Amnesty International understands that Raghdah Hassan is now being kept at the Political Security branch in Tartus, a city on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Political Security is one of several security forces involved in the arrest, detention and questioning of people accused of political offences. The Syrian authorities have not revealed the reasons behind Raghdah Hassan’s arrest or any charges brought against her."Raghdah Hassan appears to be a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression, and if this is the case she must be released immediately and unconditionally," said Philip Luther.Raghdah Hassan was questioned by Political Security on several occasions towards the end of 2009, including when they visited her at home and at work. The authorities demanded she sign a statement promising she would not publish the novel but she refused to do so.The 38-year-old was previously detained without trial or charge for two and a half years, between 1992 and 1995, for her alleged membership of the Communist Action Party (CAP). In 1995, she was brought before the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) and acquitted. This period of her detention inspired The New Prophets.Freedoms of expression and association are strictly controlled in Syria, aided by "state of emergency" laws which have been in force since 1964. Only the Ba’ath Party and some parties linked to it are officially recognized as political parties in Syria and human rights organizations are not authorized to operate.Political activists, human rights defenders, bloggers and government critics face constant harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention. In March 2009, pro-reform activist Habib Saleh was sentenced to three years in prison by for "weakening nationalist sentiment" and spreading "false news" after he criticized the government on the internet.Image: Raghdah Hassan. Copyright: Private