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One of Syria's most prominent political dissidents has been arrested and 10 other opposition activists have been charged with undermining the state as part of Syria's newest crackdown on pro-democracy figures, report Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and ARTICLE 19.

Riyad Seif, a former MP and an outspoken government critic, was arrested by state security agents on 28 January.

Seif heads the secretariat of the Damascus Declaration group, which was formed in 2005 by five opposition groups and six political activists. Signatories of the declaration want to build support for peaceful democratic change in Syria and better relations with Lebanon.

"The Damascus Declaration is a legitimate form of expression, protected under international law," says ARTICLE 19. "Instead of attacking and silencing dissenting voices, the Syrian authorities should welcome such much needed democratic debate and initiate a dialogue with civil society."

Earlier on 28 January, 10 other signatories of the declaration, two of them journalists, were charged with "undermining the state." They were arrested after attending a meeting in Seif's home in early December to set up a national council that would implement the declaration. Freedom House says the council is calling for radical democratic change in the country, and has united a wide range of political leanings and ethnic groups.

According to Human Rights Watch and local news reports, at least 12 activists have been detained for attending last month's meeting, including the latest victim, prominent Syrian artist Talal Abu Dan. Eight of them have allegedly been tortured while being interrogated, reports Human Rights Watch.

The 10 dissidents charged and ordered to pre-trial detention were president of the council, Fida'a al-Hawrani; secretaries Ahmad Ta'ma and Akram al-Bunni; secretariat members Ali al-Abdallah (who is also a journalist), Walid al-Bunni, Yasir al-Iti and Jabr al-Shufi; and council members Muhammed Haji Darwish, Marwan al-Ush and Fayiz Sarah. Sarah, a writer and journalist, was arrested in early January shortly after he condemned the December crackdown on a TV programme. According to RSF, they face between three and 15 years in prison.

Akram al-Bunni is the brother of prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who is himself serving a five-year sentence for "spreading false rumours that weaken the nation" for signing the declaration.

In a separate case, Mazen Darwish and Hasan Kamel of the Syrian Center for Media were detained for three days in Damascus after being arrested on 12 January. They were interrogated by the Military Prosecution Court about their coverage of violent incidents which took place in Adra, a suburb of Damascus, and were charged with spreading incitements of violence. The charges were later dropped.

In the past year, six prominent government critics and human rights campaigners, including Anwar al-Bunni and one of Syria's most respected writers, Michel Kilo, have been convicted and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. Human rights groups say Syria is holding hundreds of political prisoners and activists, some without charge or trial.

Syria is ranked 154th out of 169 countries in Reporters Without Borders 2007 world press freedom index, and "not free" in Freedom House's 2007 survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World.

Visit these links:
- Freedom House:
- Human Rights Watch:
- RSF:
(5 February 2008)

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