Syria: ‘Arabji and Dekalbab facing unfair trials

Kareem ‘Arabji and Muhammad Dekalbab are to appear in court in Syria on 8 and 9 June respectively in trials which could lead to them being sentenced to imprisonment for exercising their right to freedom of expression, Amnesty International said today.

The organization believes they are likely to be prisoners of conscience, who should be released immediately.

“The trials of ‘Arabji and Dekalbab are part of a broader and ongoing campaign by the Syrian authorities to silence peaceful advocates of reform and others who may express ideas that do not conform to those of the state,” said Amnesty International.

Kareem ‘Arabji, aged 30, a business consultant, is due to appear before the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) on 8 June. ‘Arabji was arrested by Syria’s Military Intelligence on 7 June 2007. He has been held with no access to the outside world for almost a year, during which time he may have been tortured.

‘Arabji was charged with “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country”. Amnesty International believes the charge is related to his moderating of the Internet youth forum Akhawia, as well as his postings on it.

Muhammad Bedia’ Dekalbab, aged 59, a member of the unauthorized National Organization for Human Rights, is due to be appear before the Military Court in Damascus on 9 June. Dekalbab was arrested on 2 March 2008 and charged with “spreading false or exaggerated information… that may undermine the prestige of the state”, based on an article he wrote criticizing the lack of freedom of expression in Syria.

Trials conducted before the SSSC and military courts are routinely unfair and cases are often based on vaguely worded charges that are interpreted extremely broadly by the Syrian authorities. In addition, “confessions” obtained through torture and ill-treatment are accepted as evidence in them.  

“‘Arabji and Dekalbab are at great risk or receiving grossly unfair sentences, given the Syrian security courts’ record of handing down stiff penalties for individuals who may disagree with the policies of the ruling Ba’th Party,” said Amnesty International.

“We urge the Syrian authorities to release both men, as well as all others detained for speaking their mind.”

Background: Among many others detained in Syria on account of their expressed views is Habib Saleh, a writer and peaceful advocate of reform, who was arrested on 7 May 2008 and has been held at an unknown location with no access to the outside world. The arrest of Saleh, adopted twice as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, is thought to relate to comments he published on the Internet.

On 10 May 2008, Tariq Bayassi, the owner of a computer store, was sentenced after an unfair trial before the SSSC to three years’ imprisonment based on comments he posted on the Internet deemed critical of the authorities. He was convicted of affecting “the morale of the country” and “weakening nationalist sentiments”.

On 7 April 2008, Firas Sa’ad, a poet, was sentenced before the SSSC to four years’ imprisonment. The conviction is believed to have been based on articles he had written on the Internet concerning the 2006 conflict between Hizbullah and Israel, and on the imprisoned writer Michel Kilo.

Michel Kilo himself was sentenced on 13 May 2007 to three years’ imprisonment before the Criminal Court in Damascus, convicted of affecting “the morale of the country” based on his signing an open petition concerning Syrian-Lebanese relations.

On 23 April the First Criminal Military Court in Damascus found Kamal al-Labwani guilty of “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country”. The sentence has been added to the 12-year term he is already serving on account of his work in advocacy of peaceful reform in the country.