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In a joint action, 26 IFEX members appealed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy to demand the release of hundreds of political prisoners and raise the issue of Syria's dire free expression record with President Bashar al-Assad during his visit to Damascus on 3 and 4 September.

The 26 IFEX members, led by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), say that Syrian authorities continue to arrest, prosecute and imprison journalists, activists, and "anyone who challenges the policies of President Bashar al-Assad, calls for democratic reforms or advocates changes in Syria's relations with Lebanon."

The members point out the cases of imprisoned writer and journalist Michel Kilo and human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni. On 20 August, a Damascus criminal court judge rejected a request for Kilo's release - although he has served more than two years of a three-year sentence and qualifies for early discharge. In April 2007, al-Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison.

Along with many other activists, Kilo and al-Bunni were persecuted for signing declarations calling for better relations between Syria and Lebanon - one of Sarkozy's key policy objectives.

In a separate appeal to Sarkozy, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) expressed particular concern for the health of Ali al-Abdallah, an independent journalist held since 17 December, who was allegedly assaulted while in police custody.

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. Reports from human rights groups repeatedly detail unwarranted arrests, arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment and torture, politically motivated charges and sham trials facing those who express critical and dissident views - including the Kurdish minority.

Sarkozy's visit comes at a time of increased repression in Syria. Twelve activists, including former Member of Parliament Riad Seif, are currently on trial for attending a meeting last December of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, a gathering of opposition groups. Human Rights Watch reports that they face politically motivated charges, such as "weakening national sentiment and awakening sectarian strife" and "spreading false news which would affect the morale of the country." Their next court appearance is 24 September.

Human Rights Watch is also urging Sarkozy to inquire about the riot in July at Sednaya prison, where many political prisoners are kept. Military police opened fire on rioting inmates, killing as many as 25, but Syrian authorities have yet to inform families and rights groups of their identities.

According to Human Rights Watch, Sarkozy has expressed his desire to reconcile with Syria. Commenting on his planned visit, Sarkozy said that he rejected the idea of isolating Syria, preferring "open dialogue leading to tangible progress." In July, al-Assad was Sarkozy's distinguished guest on the VIP stand during Bastille celebrations in Paris.

Visit these links:
- IFEX joint letter:
- Human Rights Watch:
- RSF:
- IFEX Syria page:
(3 September 2008)

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