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Journalist and human rights lawyer remain behind bars

Syrian authorities continue to ignore protests about the detention of critics of the regime under spurious charges. Despite finishing a 30-month sentence, a Syrian journalist and activist is being kept in jail in reprisal for an article smuggled out of prison which criticises the Iranian regime and Syria's relations with Iran, report Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). As well, a human rights lawyer who has repeatedly called attention to the abysmal treatment and torture of political prisoners was sentenced on 23 June to three years in prison, report the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and Freedom House.

Ali al-Abdallah was arrested in December 2007 right after he was elected to the secretariat of the Damascus Declaration, a reform movement calling for peaceful and democratic changes in Syria. He has regularly written for numerous prominent Arabic-language newspapers outside Syria. He was charged, along with 11 other activists, with "disseminating false information with the aim of harming the state and weakening national feelings," "membership in a secret organisation designed to destabilise the political and economic structure of the state," and "inciting ethnic and racial tension."

He finished his prison term on 17 June 2010 after being sentenced in 2008 on highly politicised charges related to attending a meeting of numerous opposition groups and activists.

But instead of being released, officials told him that he must remain in jail to face a new trial on charges of "broadcasting false or exaggerated news that could affect the morale of the country." IFEX members say the continued detention is punishment for an article he wrote, challenging an Iranian doctrine that grants authority over politics to a religious figure.

"In Syria today, not only are you not allowed to critique Syria, but you also can't criticise Syria's allies," said Human Rights Watch.

Authorities have been interrogating and arresting human rights activists, lawyers and journalists in a crackdown that has become more intense since mid-2009, says RSF.

In another case, lawyer and rights activist Muhannad al-Hassani, the chair of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Sawasiyah) has been jailed for his reports on exceptional trials before the High State Security Court and his exposure of the death of a detainee due to torture, says CIHRS. After years of harassment from the Syrian government, he was arrested in July 2009 and charged with "spreading false information that affects the unity of the nation" and "weakening national morale." Winner of this year's Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, al-Hassani has regularly represented activists and political detainees before the courts.

In 2010 alone, security services have detained numerous dissidents who tried to exercise their rights to free expression and assembly. Many of the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners in Syria have never been tried, says Freedom House.

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