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Prominent lawyer turning 80 in jail

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, August 14, 2010 - President Bashar al-Asad of Syria should immediately release from prison the prominent lawyer and human rights activist Haytham al-Maleh, Human Rights Watch said today. Al-Maleh, who will celebrate his 80th birthday August 15, is serving a three-year sentence for his criticism of Syrian authorities in a TV interview. Human Rights Watch called for his prompt release given that his conviction violated his right to freedom of expression, in addition to his age and deteriorating health.

Al-Maleh's son told Human Rights Watch that his father recently had a stomach infection caused by prison food and was also suffering from degenerative arthritis in his knees. The results of a recent blood test showed he had an inflammatory disease, his son said.

"President al-Asad surely cannot justify keeping behind bars an 80-year-old man who is only in jail for speaking his mind," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "President al-Asad should show compassion during this month of Ramadan and release Haytham al-Maleh."

Al-Maleh is one of Syria's most prominent lawyers and human rights activists. On July 4, 2010, a military tribunal sentenced him to three years in jail on charges of "weakening national sentiment" and "spreading false information that weakens the nation's morale" after an opposition television station, Barada TV, aired a phone interview on October 12, 2009, in which he criticized the Syrian authorities.

Syrian authorities previously jailed al-Maleh from 1980 to 1987 for his activities in the Freedom and Human Rights Committee of the Syrian Lawyers Union, the local bar association. In 2001, he co-founded the Human Rights Association in Syria, a human rights group that the government has denied a license to operate. In 2006, the Dutch government awarded him the Geuzen Medal for his "courageous fight for human rights," but the Syrian government did not allow him to travel to the Netherlands to receive the prize in person.

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