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Journalist detained for government critiques; Kurds' free expression systematically targeted

In a recent wave of arbitrary arrests of dissidents, a journalist who wrote articles on government corruption and defended other journalists harassed by authorities was arrested on 22 November, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The Kurdish community has also been singled out for violations of free expression by Syrian authorities, reports Human Rights Watch.

Journalist Ma'an Aqil was seized at his office at the government daily "Al-Thawra" in Damascus and detained, reports RSF. Two days later he was dismissed from his job. National security agents have harassed Aqil for the past year over his government critiques. In 1987 he was sentenced to nine years in prison for being a member of the Communist Action League, a banned party.

"Harassment, summonses, interrogations, arrests, sentences - the practices of the Syrian judicial and security systems are steadily eroding media freedom and free expression," RSF 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."

According to RSF, other dissidents have been imprisoned on trumped up charges of weakening national security. Muhannad Al-Hassani, the president of the Syrian Human Rights Association, faces three to 15 years in prison. Anwar Al Bunni, a human rights lawyer who defended political prisoners, is serving a five year-prison sentence.

In a separate case, Pir Rustem, a politically committed Kurdish writer and member of the Damascus Declaration National Council, was arrested in November, report RSF and the International Support Kurds in Syria Association (SKS), a local rights group.

Kurds have been especially targeted since massive Kurdish demonstrations took place in 2004, says a Human Rights Watch report released in November. "Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria" documents the detention of political activists and efforts to ban meetings calling for minority rights or celebrating Kurdish culture. Police have fatally fired into crowds on at least two occasions.

In 2004, military intelligence issued a warning to Kurdish political leaders, telling them all Kurdish parties in Syria had to cease their political and cultural activities; otherwise, the government would treat them like members of other banned parties, says the report. Security forces have focused on arresting political leaders, easily tried in military courts for being members of so-called banned organisations.

The report is based on interviews with 30 Kurdish activists recently released from prison, as well as 15 relatives of Kurdish activists still in jail. Activists told Human Rights Watch that they were held incommunicado at security branches and were rarely permitted to contact their families. Many were tortured by security services.

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