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The director of a free expression group in Syria is facing a military court trial this month. Thirty-five members and partners of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), and the Arab Working Group, which monitors media freedom around elections, have appealed directly to President Bashar al-Assad to drop the charges against him and to end the ongoing harassment of human rights activists and organisations.

Mazen Darwish, the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), and his colleague Hassan Kamel were detained on 12 January while they were covering violent incidents that took place in Adra, a suburb of Damascus. They were held for three days.

Darwish has been charged with "libelling and insulting state administrative bodies" and is due in court on 15 April. Other charges against Darwish have been dropped, as have those against Kamel, who is not being tried.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) lead the joint action, and other IFEX members, including the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo), Human Rights Watch and the International Press Institute (IPI), have been working on the case.

This is not the first time Darwish has been targeted. Last May and December, he was denied the right to travel. Other staff members have been summoned and interrogated in relation to their work for SCM. Security forces detained Adnan Hamdan, SCM's programme director, on 13 March and held him for two days for unknown reasons. Hani Zaitani, director of the studies department, has been summoned by the Prosecutor's Office seven times, while Jamil Makhoul, a researcher, was summoned five times.

The centre itself has also been subject to harassment. In 2006, the National Security Department refused to grant the centre permission to work, and last year, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs refused to license and register the centre.

These incidents come amid an ongoing pattern of harassment and detention of journalists and activists. In the past year, six prominent government critics and human rights campaigners, including Anwar al-Bunni and Michel Kilo, have been convicted and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. At least a dozen Human rights defenders who attended a meeting in December to set up a national council to implement the Damascus Declaration, which calls for peaceful democratic change in Syria and better relations with Lebanon, were detained and charged with "undermining the state".

Human rights groups say Syria is holding hundreds of political prisoners and activists, some without charge or trial.

Visit these links:
- IFEX joint statement:
- IFEX Syria page:
(8 April 2008)

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