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Journalist Michel Kilo free at last

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders welcomes writer and journalist Michel Kilo's release at 11 p.m. (local time) on 19 May 2009 from the Damascus headquarters of the intelligence services, where he had been held and interrogated for the previous five days.

Intelligence agents had seized Kilo as he was freed from Adra prison in Damascus at midnight on 14 May on completing a three-year jail sentence. His family says his state of health is very worrying. He has kidney stones in the urethra, the presence of which was confirmed by an ultrasound scan carried out in the Adra prison infirmary on 14 May.

Now aged 68, Kilo was arrested on 14 May 2006 after signing the "Beirut-Damascus / Damascus-Beirut Declaration", an appeal for a radical overhaul of relations between Syria and Lebanon, and was given the three-year sentence on a charge of "undermining national sentiment." He was made to serve the entire sentence although a judge ruled in favour of early release. He was awarded the British Parliamentary Press Gallery prize in October 2008.

Reporters Without Borders reiterates its call for the lifting of the state of emergency that has been in force for the past 46 years in Syria, suppressing civil rights and freedoms. All dissent was silenced during Hafez Al-Assad's 30-year dictatorship. After the dictator was succeeded by his son, Bashar Al-Assad, in 2000, people were given a limited opportunity to express their views for a brief period known as the "Damascus Spring".

But a wave of arrests followed a December 2007 meeting by pro-democracy activists allied in what was known as the Damascus Declaration National Council. In all, 12 leading figures were arrested by the intelligence services, including three journalists - Fayez Sara, Ali Abdallah and Akram Bounni.

Four journalists and bloggers are still detained in Syria, which was ranked 159th out of 173 countries in the 2008 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. President Bashar Al-Assad is on the Reporters Without Borders list of "Predators of Press Freedom."

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