Syria: Release pro-democracy activists immediately

The Syrian authorities must immediately release 12 activists who have been victims of an unfair trial which could see them sentenced for up to 15 years in prison, Amnesty International said today.

“Syria must put an end to its policy of silencing peaceful dissent and punishing people who dare to speak out,” said Philip Luther, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Amnesty International launched a campaign earlier this month calling for the release of all 12 activists, who were arrested in December 2007 and January 2008 after taking part in a meeting of the opposition coalition, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC). Tens of other participants were arrested but later released without charge.

The 12 activists were arrested for calling for democratic reform and respect for human rights. They have been charged with “weakening national sentiment”, “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”, joining “an organization formed with the purpose of changing the financial or social status of the state” and “inciting sectarian strife”. They are being tried before the Damascus Criminal Court and a verdict is expected on 29 October.

Following their arrests, the 12 activists were held with no access to the outside world in Damascus by the State Security Branch for several weeks, during which time most have said that they were beaten and coerced into signing false “confessions”. Their access to lawyers has been restricted, while the lawyers themselves have been denied copies of the case files.

The organization has also been calling for an investigation into the allegations of torture and other ill-treatment against some of the activists. 

Amnesty International considers all 12 to be prisoners of conscience, detained solely for calling for democratic reform and respect for human rights. Background The DDDNC, established in October 2005, is an unauthorized coalition of political parties, human rights organizations and pro-democracy activists. It brings together groups of different tendencies, including Arab nationalist, Islamic, Kurdish, leftist and liberal.

On 1 December 2007, around 170 members held a meeting to elect the leadership of the DDDNC National Council; Feda’a al-Horani was elected president, while Akram al-Bunni and Ahmad To’meh were both elected to the senior position of secretary.

These three were arrested along with Dr Walid al-Bunni; Arabic literature teacher and literary critic Jabr al-Shoufi; journalist ‘Ali al-‘Abdullah; journalist and writer Fayez Sarah; Dr Yasser al-‘Eiti; People’s Democratic Party member Muhammed Haji Darwish; geological engineer Marwan al-‘Ush; former independent member of parliament Riad Seif; and artist Talal Abu Dan.

The DDDNC has called on the Syrian government to suspend the state of emergency which it declared 8 March 1963. The coalition has also urged the authorities to release all political prisoners; to allow the safe return of Syrian exiles; to abolish Law 49, which makes membership of the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death; and to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Under the state of emergency, the authorities have clamped down on political opposition parties and human rights organizations, which are forced to operate without authorization. Their members are at constant risk of arrest and harassment, and many are prevented from leaving the country.