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Human Rights Watch calls on authorities to free activist who criticised Iran

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, December 17, 2010 - Syrian authorities should not prosecute a political activist for statements criticizing Iran's 2009 presidential election and should release him immediately, Human Rights Watch said today. Such a prosecution would appear to be a violation of his right to freely engage in peaceful political comment. December 17, 2010, is the third anniversary of the detention of the activist, Ali Al-'Abdallah, for attending a peaceful political meeting.

Al-'Abdallah, a member of the Damascus Declaration opposition group, finished a 30-month sentence on June 17. Instead of releasing him, prison authorities referred him to a military court for his statement to a news agency from his prison cell criticizing human rights violations during Iran's 2009 presidential election and for an article he wrote critiquing Iran's wilayat al-faqih doctrine, which grants absolute political authority to a religious figure.

"This is a new low for a government known for its complete intolerance of criticism," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Syria's authorities are no longer satisfied with jailing peaceful critics of their own policies. Now they want to punish people for what they say about another government."

On September 19, a military investigative judge charged al-'Abdullah with "spoil[ing] Syria's relations with another country" under article 278 of the Penal Code. A military court confirmed the charge on December 1, responding to an appeal by his lawyers. No date has been set for the trial.

State Security officials initially detained him on December 17, 2007, after he and others associated with the Damascus Declaration, a gathering of numerous opposition groups and activists calling for democratic reforms, met to elect a new executive committee. A Damascus Criminal Court sentenced him, along with 11 other activists, to 30-month sentences on vaguely defined charges of "weakening national sentiment" and "spreading false or exaggerated news that would affect the morale of the country."

The other Damascus Declaration detainees were released at the end of their prison terms in June, but officials of Political Security, one of Syria's security services, referred al-'Abdallah to the military prosecutor. Al-'Abdallah, a writer and journalist, had already served three earlier prison terms for his peaceful activism.

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