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Wave of arrests against signatories of petition calling for "democratic change"

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has condemned a wave of arrests against signatories of a petition calling for "democratic change" in Syria and highlighted the continuing plight of journalist Michel Kilo, serving a three-year jail sentence also for signing a petition.

At least 39 signatories of the Damascus Declaration were arrested on 11 December 2007 in several cities in the country. They had met at the start of the month to elect a new executive bureau.

The Damascus Declaration was launched in October 2005 and groups including several members of political parties which are banned in Syria. Signatories are calling for "democratic and radical change".

Most of those arrested were released within a few hours, but four members of the bureau, including the president, Fida'a al-Horani, and the secretary Akram al-Bunni - brother of human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, who was arrested at the same time as Michael Kilo in 2006 - are still being held in the capital by the state security services.

Akram al-Bunni's arrest came just a few days after he was elected to the opposition National Council of the Damascus Declaration.

Kilo and human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, 48, were arrested in May 2006 after signing the "Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut" manifesto, which was signed by many intellectuals and human rights activists, urging "respect and consolidation of the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon and Syria in a framework of institutionalised and open relations".

Anwar al-Bunni was sentenced on 24 April, to five years in prison for "spreading false rumours which weaken the nation" while Michel Kilo was sentenced on 13 May, to three years in prison for "undermining national sentiment".

"Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni have been victims of injustice for more than a year. This cannot go on any longer," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"The Syrian regime allows no room for freedom of expression. This latest campaign of arrests against signatories of a document calling on the regime to show more openness is just the latest confirmation of it. Syrians who dare to call for more democracy find themselves in prison after trials which are a mere formality, the outcomes of which are known in advance."

Syria is ranked in 154th place out of 169 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2007 world press freedom index.

More than 16 years ago, Reporters Without Borders set up a system of "adoption" of imprisoned journalists and called on international media to support one of them. More than 200 media, journalists' organisations, press clubs and institutions worldwide now support a colleague and regularly call on the relevant authorities for their release and publicise their cases so they are not forgotten.

Michel Kilo is sponsored in this way by: "Le Pèlerin" (France), Club de la presse Méditerranée 06 (France), Varios Foros (Spain), Asociacion de la Prensa de Almeria (Spain), and Ayuntamiento de Calafell (Spain).

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