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IFEX MEMBERS CONDEMN 30-MONTH PRISON SENTENCE FOR ACTIVISTS

IFEX members are outraged at the sentencing of a dozen pro-democracy activists to more than two years in prison, saying that it is the latest sign of the Syrian government's crackdown on opposition groups.

The activists, three of whom are journalists (Ali Abdullah, Akram Al-Bunni and Fayez Sara), were sentenced on 29 October to 30 months in prison for "weakening national sentiment" and "spreading false or exaggerated news that would affect the morale of the country". After the sentences were announced, the 12 defendants joined hands and shouted pro-democracy slogans.

The activists are all members of the Damascus Declaration, a loose coalition of political parties and independent activists set up in 2005 that calls for peaceful democratic change in Syria. They have been detained since they attended a meeting last December to set up a national council for the group and elect a leadership.

Human Rights Watch, who attended the sentencing, said the charges were politically motivated. "In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting," said Human Rights Watch. "The trial was a mere cover to legitimise the government's repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics."

Other IFEX members, including ARTICLE 19, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), also appealed to President Bashar al-Assad to immediately quash the convictions and order the prisoners' release. RSF is calling 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.

Riad Seif, former Member of Parliament who was among those sentenced, said, "I think that we are not being tried by this court, but from a power that relies on the state of emergency and the security services."

According to RSF, 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, and is ranked 159th out of 173 countries in RSF's World Press Freedom Index.

The country has a long record of prosecuting political activists who peacefully express their opinions. In May 2007, the Second Damascus Criminal Court sentenced four prominent activists, including prominent writer Michel Kilo and political activist Mahmoud Issa, to periods varying from three to 10 years in prison for "weakening national sentiment" after they signed a declaration calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations.

RSF reports that a Damascus appeal court judge granted Kilo early release from prison on 2 November, but Damascus's attorney general appealed the decision "in the interests of the law" and Kilo has yet to be released.

Sign RSF's petition for Michel Kilo's release: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=19758

Visit these links:
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/6javt4
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/58x3lu
- IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/6xe9as
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29121
- RSF on Kilo: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29188
(5 November 2008)

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