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Ten pro-democracy activists including two journalists risk three to 15 years in prison

(RSF/IFEX) - Two journalists and eight other pro-democracy activists who signed the Damascus Declaration, an appeal for "radical democratic change," were brought before a judge in Damascus, on 28 January 2008, six weeks after the start of a wave of arrests, and were formally charged with attacking the prestige of the state, publishing false information, membership of a secret organisation aimed at destabilising the state and fuelling ethnic and racial tension.

"Bashar al-Assad led people to believe that a page had been turned when he became President in June 2000," Reporters Without Borders said. "He spoke of his desire to modernise the state and actively combat corruption. Several political activists and journalists felt sufficiently confident to call for an end to the state of emergency and a return to the rule of law. But the spring was short-lived and arbitrary arrests soon resumed under the new regime. The Damascus Declaration's signatories are the latest victims."

Those who appeared in court on 28 January were Fida'a Al-Horani, president of the executive bureau of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, Akram Al-Bunni, its general secretary, Ahmad To'meh, Jaber Al-Shufi, Mohammed Darwish, Marwan Al-Aashi, Walid Bunni, Mohammad Yasser Al-Iti and journalists Fayez Sara and Ali Abdallah.

After being formally notified of the charges under articles 285, 286, 306 and 307 of the criminal code, for which they face between three and 15 years in prison, they were questioned for about four hours by the investigating judge. Khalil Maatuk, one of the defence lawyers, said they denied all the charges.

"They tried to convince the judge of the peaceful and patriotic nature of their initiative, which aspires to bring about democratic change without any foreign influence," Maatuk said.

The judge ordered pre-trial detention. They were all transferred to Adra prison (in a Damascus suburb), except Horani, who was taken to Duma women's prison.

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