Sign up for weekly updates


Two human rights activists sentenced to three years in prison for signing a petition are the latest victims of Syria's crackdown on human rights defenders and critics, report Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) and Human Rights Watch.

On the first anniversary of their arrest last May, journalist Michel Kilo and activist Mahmoud Issa were convicted this week of "weakening national sentiment" for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for better relations with Lebanon.

"We are not criminals, we are patriotic people," said Kilo after the verdict was read out, reports the Al Jazeera website.

Two other activists, Suleiman Shummar and Khalil Hussein, were sentenced in absentia to 10 years' imprisonment on similar charges, says Al Jazeera.

The "prisoners of conscience" join prominent lawyer and human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni, who was sentenced to five years in prison on 24 April for also being a signatory to the declaration and "disseminating false information harmful to the state," reports Human Rights Watch. The declaration was signed by more than 300 Syrian and Lebanese nationals.

"There is something seriously wrong with a justice system that imposes long jail terms on anyone who dares to express views that are not in line with Baathist thinking," says RSF. "Journalists and human rights activists have virtually no room to manoeuvre."

Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) and two other human rights lawyers had travelled to Damascus to attend Kilo's trial on 18 April, which was then cancelled and postponed several times. HRinfo and Eid are themselves under pressure in Egypt, during a time when the Egyptian government seems intent on cracking down on dissent. The move against free expression in Egypt is likely influencing Syria and other countries in the region.

Less than a week ago another human rights activist was sentenced to 12 years in prison - including hard labour - for a trip to the U.S. and Europe, reports Human Rights Watch. Dr. Kamal al-Labwani was convicted of "communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria." Al-Labwani was arrested upon returning from his two-month trip to the U.S. and Europe in the fall of 2005 where he had met with government officials, journalists and human rights organisations and called for democratic reform in Syria.

Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in a coup in 1963 and banned political opposition. According to Al Jazeera, Syria's government, led by Bashar al-Assad, remains sensitive to criticism of its Lebanon policy after it withdrew its troops from the country following the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. Assad was nominated unanimously on Friday by the Baathist dominated parliament for a second, seven-year term.

In early May, following the release of an extensive report by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) on "Media and Freedom of Expression in Syria 2006", Mazen Darwish, the head of SCM and the editor-in-chief of the banned Syria View website, was prevented from leaving Syria to attend a free expression conference in Morocco. The conference was organised by the Working Group for Free Expression in North Africa (WFGENA).

"The Syrian government has accelerated its crackdown on free speech and peaceful activism," says Human Rights Watch. "Peaceful activists are paying a heavy price for expressing their views."

In light of the recent harsh sentences, there is an increased fear for the fate of hundreds of other prisoners of conscience whose trials are nearing completion. Kilo and Issa, like al-Bunni and al-Labwani, were tried before the Criminal Court, without adequate access to their lawyers, reports Amnesty International. According to Human Rights Watch, following al-Bunni's conviction, al-Labwani and other political prisoners smuggled out a joint letter that says that detainees "should feel that they are not alone, and that there is hope for a peaceful resolution of the crisis of freedoms and human rights in Syria."

Amnesty has launched an urgent solidarity action. Take a picture of yourself holding a message of solidarity for the Syrian prisoners of conscience and email it to: [email protected] Your photo will be added to Amnesty's gallery of activities supporting the prisoners. Also, write to the Syrian authorities to stop the persecution of Syrian political prisoners. For addresses and details of the campaign, see:

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch's work on Syria:
- HRinfo:
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS):
- Al Jazeera:
- The International Committee for Supporting Michel Kilo:
- National Organization for Human Rights in Syria:
- Free Syria:
- Arab Organization for Human Rights-Syria (AOHRS):
(Photo, clockwise from top left: Michel Kilo, Kamal al-Labwani, Anwar al-Bunni and Mahmoud Issa. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International)

(15 May 2007)

Latest Tweet:

Turkey: Bianet columnist Bülent Şık is under investigation on 'terrorist propaganda' charges.…

Get more stories like this

Sign up for our newsletters and get the most important free expression news delivered to your inbox.