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HARASSMENT OF RIGHTS ACTIVISTS DOCUMENTED

Syrian authorities should stop restricting the freedom of human rights activists to express their views and to associate, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on 17 October 2007.

The 46-page report, "No Room to Breathe: State Repression of Human Rights Activism in Syria,"examines the legal environment in which activists operate and the government practices to which they are subject. It also charts the development of the human rights community and its challenges, based on interviews with Syria's human rights groups, independent lawyers and international diplomats in Damascus.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has wide legal jurisdiction to intervene in any civil society association by appointing board members and attending meetings. However, Syria has refused to recognise any of the human rights groups that have applied for registration.

"Without legal status, these groups operate at the whim of the authorities and live in constant fear of being shut down," Human Rights Watch said. "They cannot even rent a place to meet."

Syria's powerful security services routinely harass human rights groups by breaking up meetings, banning travel and arresting activists, the report concludes. "Activists who dare to document government violations end up being charged for dubious crimes such as 'weakening national sentiment' or 'spreading false news.'"

The government argues that criticism serves the United States and other Western countries. But the victims of state repression usually have no link to foreign powers and themselves criticise U.S. policy.

Self-censorship can be more severe than state censorship, Mazen Darwich, director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, told the Arab Press Network in an interview.

In early October, Human Rights Watch called for the release of two men held incommunicado since June for expressing criticism online. And on 23 September, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced a third man to two years in prison for posting online comments that displeased the authorities.

Global Voices reported on 22 October that all Syrian Internet providers are blocking access to Google's popular Blogspot.com space.

Visit these links:
- "No Room to Breathe": http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/10/17/syria17075.htm
Also Available in Arabic: http://hrw.org/arabic/reports/2007/syria1007/
- Internet activists held: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/10/08/syria17024.htm
- Arab Press Network: http://www.arabpressnetwork.org/articlesv2.php?id=1574
- Global Voices on Blogspot: http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/?p=146
(23 Oct. 2007)

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