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Court hands down 36-month sentences to Damascus Declaration journalists

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is deeply outraged by the sentences of two and a half years in prison which a Damascus court passed on 29 October 2009 on three Syrian journalists and nine other pro-democracy activists - all members of the Damascus Declaration National Council.

The press freedom organisation calls on the international community, including the European Union, whose presidency is currently held by France, to take a greater interest in the fate of prisoners of conscience in Syria.

"These disgraceful sentences were to be expected, given Syria's appalling human rights record, but they are nonetheless shocking," Reporters Without Borders said. "The international community cannot continue treating this regime with kid gloves if it persecutes its journalists and civil society in such a brutal manner. These dissidents, who have been gagged by a subservient judicial system, need the support of all those who are committed to freedom of opinion and expression."

The twelve Damascus Declaration members sentenced on 29 October were Fida'a Al-Horani (a doctor), Ali Abdallah (a journalist), Akram Al-Bunni (a journalist), Riyad Seif (an industrialist and former parliamentarian), Fayez Sara (a journalist), Ahmad Taama (a doctor), Jabr Al-Shufi (a civil servant), Walid Al-Bunni (a doctor), Yasser Al-Iti (a doctor), Mohammed Hajji Darwish (a civil servant), Marwan Al-Aach (an engineer) and Tala Abu-Dan (a painter and sculptor).

After the president of Damascus' Assize Court announced the sentences, the 12 defendants joined hands and shouted pro-democracy slogans. Their lawyers have 30 days to file appeals. Khalil Maatouk, a member of their legal defence team, condemned what he called a "political trial."

Signed in October 2005 by opposition representatives and leading members of civil society, the Damascus Declaration is a call for change based on political freedom, respect for ethnic and religious minorities, separation of powers and free expression.

More than 160 members of the Damascus Declaration National Council met in the Syrian capital on 1 December 2007 to elect a secretariat and to reaffirm their commitment to democratic reform at the end of a "peaceful and progressive process."

Around 40 of its members were arrested in the course of the following five or six months, and 12 of them - the 12 sentenced today - were eventually charged with "publishing false information with the aim of harming the state", "membership in a secret organisation designed to destabilise the state" and "inciting ethnic and racial tensions."

Syria is now the Middle East's second largest prison for the media, after Iran, with a total of four journalists and five cyber-dissidents currently detained. It was ranked 159th out of 173 countries in the world press freedom index, which Reporters Without Borders issued on 22 October.

To assist news media who are interested, Reporters Without Borders has prepared a short report on the Damascus Declaration detainees with a caricature by Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem:

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