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Human rights lawyer sentenced to five-year prison term for signing joint statement

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders condemned the five-year prison sentence imposed by the Damascus criminal court on 24 April 2007 on lawyer and human rights activist Anwar Al-Bunni for signing a joint statement calling for better relations with Lebanon. Held for the past 11 months, he was found guilty of "disseminating false information weakening the nation."

"On the same day as the start of a visit by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and a day after a sham election designed to maintain the Baath party's grip on power, a compliant judicial system has passed an unacceptable sentence on Al-Bunni in order to set an example and to discourage dissident groups from pushing for democracy," the press freedom organisation said.
"Nothing has changed in Syria in recent years and President Bashar Al-Assad's installation in 2000 did not mean a break with the previous regime," Reporters Without Borders continued. "The authorities have closed the vice around activists and independent journalists. Al-Bunni's conviction bodes ill for Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, who are being prosecuted on the same charges. We urge the authorities to drop the charges against them" (see IFEX alerts of 29 and 7 March 2007, 17 November, 31 and 24 October 2006, and others).
Aged 48, Al-Bunni was arrested and taken to Adra prison near Damascus on 17 May 2006 during a wave of arrests of people who had signed the "Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut" joint statement advocating the need to "respect and consolidate the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon and of Syria as part of institutionalised and transparent relations." Signed by more than 300 leading figures from both countries, it had been made public a week before in Beirut.
Khalil Maâtouk of the Al-Bunni defence committee told Reporters Without Borders his client's conviction was a "political decision aimed at punishing him for his human rights activism." Al-Bunni played a key role liaising with international human rights organisations. His lawyers plan to file an appeal in the coming days. The trials of Kilo, a writer and journalist, and Issa, a Communist Party member, are due to resume on 7 May.

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