Veteran Syrian lawyer and activist receives ‘unfair’ jail term

Amnesty International has condemned the sentencing to three years in prison of veteran Syrian lawyer and human rights activist, Haytham al-Maleh. The 78-year-old was convicted by a military court in the capital Damascus on Sunday of “conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation” and “weakening national sentiment”. Syrian authorities regularly use these vaguely worded charges to prosecute and imprison government critics and human rights activists.   “As someone who did no more than peacefully express his views on the political and human rights situation in Syria, Haytham al-Maleh should not have been put on trial in the first place, let alone unfairly locked up at the age of 78,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.   “Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience and we will be redoubling our campaign for his immediate and unconditional release.”   The charges against Haytham al-Maleh arise from a television interview he gave in September 2009, where he criticized the lack of democracy, excessive powers wielded by security officials and official corruption in Syria. He is also believed to have been targeted for his published articles exposing human rights abuses in the country. Haytham al-Maleh was arrested on 14 October 2009 and detained incommunicado for a week before brought to trial at Damascus’s Second Military Court, despite the fact he is a civilian. He had been detained at ‘Adra prison and forced to share an overcrowded cell with convicted criminal prisoners. His health has deteriorated under the conditions and he now suffers from rheumatism, in addition to the diabetes and thyroid ailment he had when he entered prison. Haytham al-Maleh’s trial, at which he acted as his own defence, was marked by irregularities. He was first brought to court on 8 April 2010 but was apparently denied access to the official case file until 15 June 2010. Lawyers assisting his defence were reportedly denied access to him in prison and he was allowed only brief consultations with them in the courtroom itself.