SYRIA: Three dissidents released from jail
Three Syrian dissidents were released from jail on Sunday after serving 30-month jail terms for signing a declaration that called for sweeping democratic reforms in the country, the London-based group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
Syrian authorities released three leaders of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change: Akram Bunni, Jabr al-Shufi and Ahmed Tomeh. Bunni is the brother of high-profile Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Bunni, who is currently serving a five-year jail term.
The three were arrested along with nine other prominent signatories of the declaration (including former lawmaker Riad Seif, writer Ali Abdallah, journalist Fayez Sarah and the group's leader, Dr Fidaa Hurani) after attending a meeting in December 2007.
About 40 others who attended the meeting were picked up in security sweeps in the aftermath of the forum, but most of them were released after a couple of days, while the 12 high-profile members were kept and referred to trial. In October 2008, each was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for "weakening national sentiment," among other charges.
The Damascus Declaration, as it's commonly referred to, is a diverse coalition of political parties and Syrian opposition activists set up in 2005. Its members include Islamists and Kurds, old school leftists and Arab nationalists urging radical democratic change in Syria through peaceful means. Among other things, the group calls for the lifting of the state of emergency, release of all political prisoners and the establishment of democracy in Syria.
Syrian authorities responded to their calls with a clampdown on homegrown dissidents.
Rights groups protested the sentencing, saying it was an attempt by the Syrian authorities to crack down on the political opposition and stifle peaceful dissident.
"In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting. The trial was a mere cover to legitimize the government’s repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
According to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the remaining Damascus Declaration signatories who are still behind bars will be released very soon.
Human rights activists, however, told Babylon & Beyond that those being freed simply served out their jail terms, and that none of the dissidents have been let out of jail prematurely.
A relative of one of the jailed dissidents told Babylon & Beyond in e-mail exchange that it is expected that the Syrian authorities will release Hurani and Abdallah next week and Seif in July.
-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Upper photo: Former Syrian lawmaker Riad Seif is one of the jailed members of the Damascus Declaration still in prison. Credit: Agence France-Presse
Lower photo: A montage of some of the jailed Damascus Declaration signatories. Credit: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights