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Press freedom in Syria has suffered a distressing setback with the recent jailing of dissidents. Led by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), 23 IFEX members and two other NGOs are demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad release all "prisoners of opinion" in the country.

Prominent lawyer and human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni and journalist Michel Kilo were both arrested last year - and have been detained since - for signing the Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut Declaration, which called for better relations with Lebanon. The declaration was signed by more than 300 Syrian and Lebanese nationals and sparked a wave of arrests.

Al-Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison in April 2007 for being a signatory to the declaration and "spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation." Kilo, along with activist Mahmoud Issa, were convicted of "weakening national sentiment," "spreading false information" and inciting "religious and racial dissension." They were handed down a three-year jail term in May.

The 25 groups also expressed concern for Kamal al-Labwani, a 50-year-old physician and head of a pro-democracy group. In May, al-Labwani was sentenced to 12 years in jail - including hard labour - on charges of contacting a foreign country and "encouraging attacks against Syria." He was arrested in November 2005 after returning from a visit to the United States, where he met with White House officials and called for democratic reform in Syria. The sentence against al-Labwani is considered to be the harshest against a dissident since President al-Assad took over from his late father in 2000.

In another case, activist and former parliament member Riad Seif was prevented from travelling abroad to receive medical treatment for prostate cancer. Seif's official travel request - he cannot travel without permission for security reasons - was denied in August by the Syrian security authorities. According to Human Rights Watch, teachers Aref Dalila and Riad Drar are also detained for expressing their right to freedom of expression.

The 25 groups urge President al-Assad to release all prisoners of conscience who have been detained for peacefully expressing themselves, to work on strengthening freedom of expression and to put an end to all repressive practices against journalists and activists, including harassment, torture and arbitrary detention.

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, al-Assad's government remains sensitive to criticism of its Lebanon policy after Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon following the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister.

Visit these links:
- IFEX joint statement:
- "IFEX Communiqué" spotlight on Syria:
- Human Rights Watch's work on Syria:
- HRinfo:
- The International Committee for Supporting Michel Kilo:
- National Organization for Human Rights in Syria:
- Free Syria:
(11 September 2007)

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