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Newspaper journalist is latest victim of wave of arbitrary arrests and trials

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders is worried about Ma'an Aqil, a journalist who was arrested at his office at the government daily "Al-Thawra" in Damascus on 22 November 2009. Police from the national criminal investigations department took the journalist to their headquarters for questioning but did not explain why he was being arrested. Two days later, the Union of Press, Publications and Printing, which handles the publication of state-owned newspapers, announced that he had been dismissed.

"Harassment, summonses, interrogations, arrests, sentences – the practices of the Syrian judicial and security systems are steadily eroding media freedom and free expression," Reporters Without Borders said. "President Bashar Al-Assad has built himself the image of an international negotiator but Syrians who defend free expression are being sidelined and jailed one by one."

National security agents had been harassing Aqil for the past year over his articles and the views he expressed. He had written many reports about government corruption and had posted a piece on the Kulna Shurakaa website ( http://www.all4syria.info ) criticising the journalist Samira Musalama's appointment as head of the government newspaper "Tashrin".

Aqil had also repeatedly defended other journalists who had been harassed by authorities and had filed complaints denouncing the harassment.

In 1987, Aqil was sentenced to nine years in prison for belonging to the Communist Action League, a party that has been banned since the 1980s. His latest arrest comes at a time when five of the party's members are awaiting trial. It also coincides with a wave of arbitrary arrests and trials of human rights activists.

In another case, Pir Rustem, a politically committed Kurdish writer and member of the Damascus Declaration National Council, was arrested on 29 November. Relatives say he is being held in one of the country's high security prisons.

Meanwhile, Muhannad Al-Hassani, the president of the Syrian Human Rights Association, has been held since 28 July on charges of "undermining national sentiment" and "spreading false information" and faces a sentence of three to 15 years in prison. Anwar Al Bunni, a human rights lawyer who defended political prisoners, was sentenced on 24 June to five years in prison and fine of 100,000 Syrian pounds (1,445 euros) for "spreading mendacious reports liable to weaken the nation's spirit."

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