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Eight Reporters Without Borders (RSF) activists who used the occasion of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's launch of the Union for the Mediterranean were arrested for protesting against Syria's dire free expression record.

Shortly before the start of the Bastille Day (14 July) parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris, a group of 20 RSF activists handed out leaflets about the press freedom situation in Syria and waved placards showing journalists imprisoned in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. Police forcibly removed them from the area and eight were arrested, says RSF.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy had invited the foreign heads of state that attended the Union for the Mediterranean launch over the weekend to join him on Bastille Day, which marks the prison uprising during the French revolution. They included Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other leaders from countries who rank near the bottom of RSF's press freedom index.

"The Syrian leader's participation in the Bastille Day ceremonies is shocking," RSF says. "Nicolas Sarkozy is... marking 14 July, a day that celebrates independence and freedom, alongside the leader of one of the world's most repressive governments. How far is he prepared to go to ensure the success of his plan for a Mediterranean union? What other concessions will he make?"

In Syria, al-Assad's Baath party rigorously stifles the slightest criticism using special laws introduced under the state of emergency that began in 1963, RSF says. Four journalists and writers are imprisoned in Syria for condemning government violence. According to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), dozens of inmates protesting inhumane conditions were reportedly killed in early July at Sednaya prison in Syria, where many political prisoners are held. Syrian authorities have yet to inform families and rights groups who was killed.

The Union for the Mediterranean, Sarkozy's brainchild timed to coincide with the French presidency of the European Union, is aimed at securing peace across the restive region. It brought together for the first time leaders from such rival nations as Israel and Palestine, Algeria and Morocco, Turkey and Greece.

RSF, CIHRS, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the IFEX Tunisia Monitoring Group (TMG), have used the summit to appeal to Sarkozy and other union leaders to not underestimate press freedom and other human rights violations in the union countries, paying particular attention to Syria and Tunisia.

Visit these links:
- RSF:
- CIHRS (email): info (@)
- AP via the "Guardian":
(16 July 2008)

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