Detained Syrian American blogger faces criminal charges
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- A Syrian American blogger who was detained in Syria this month has been charged with offenses that could carry a 3- to 15-year prison sentence, according to the human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Razan Ghazzawi, 30, who blogs mainly in English at Razaniyyat and tweets at @RedRazan, has campaigned for the release of political prisoners and is one of several online activists to have been arrested during the Syrian government's crackdown on a nearly 9-month-old uprising.
A list of charges obtained by The Times from the group said Ghazzawi is accused of "membership to a secret organization which aims to change the economic and social status of the state" and “convey[ing] within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation" and “weakening national sentiment."
She is also accused of violating Article 335 of the Syrian penal code, which bans "participation in a riotous demonstration."
Neil Sammonds, an Amnesty International researcher on Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, said in a telephone interview that the group had received the information through Ghazzawi's lawyers in Syria and that she is being held in Damascus jail.
"We're told she is in Adra prison and that she has not been ill treated," he said. "She was first brought to court last week but we only got information about the charges yesterday. We hoped that she simply would be released but it's not a big surprise because a lot of people are charged. Her lawyers are fairly hopeful that she will not be given a severe sentence."
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian authorities, who blame the uprising on a terrorist rebellion and a foreign conspiracy.
Ghazzawi was arrested by Syrian immigration authorities on the Jordanian border on Dec. 4 as she was on her way to Jordan for a conference on press freedom in the Arab world, according to a statement by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, where she works as a media coordinator.
Friends reportedly took charge of her online accounts following her arrest.
Human rights and press freedom groups have denounced Ghazzawi's arrest and her friends and fellow bloggers across the region and beyond are rallying on the Internet for her release. More than 4,000 people have joined the Facebook campaign "Free Syrian Blogger & Activist Razan Ghazzawi" and as news emerged of her arrest, friends and activists started changing their profile pictures on Facebook to a photo of Ghazzawi with the banner "Free Razan" beneath the image.
A U.S. citizen by birth, Ghazzawi was raised in Saudi Arabia and Damascus. She studied English literature at the University of Damascus and later went on to study for a master's degree in comparative literature at Lebanon's Balamand University.
In 2009 she started her blog, writing about human rights issues, Arab and Syrian affairs, and often advocated for gender, women's and sexual minorities rights. She was one of very few bloggers inside Syria who penned blog posts and tweeted under her real name.
During the Syrian uprising she has been lobbying for the release of imprisoned Syrian bloggers and activists in detention. In her last blog post, dated Dec. 1, Ghazzawi wrote about the release of detained Syrian blogger Hussein Gheir, freed after nearly 40 days in detention.
"Hussein is going to be home tonight, where he will be holding his wife tight, and never let go of his two precious sons again," she wrote. "It’s all going to be alright, and it will all be over very soon."
A few weeks earlier, she hailed a speech by Fadwa Suleiman, a Syrian actress from the minority Alawite sect who took to the streets of Homs in antigovernment protests and addressed rallies there, leading anti-sectarian chants and calling for unity from a makeshift podium before going on a hunger strike.
"Do you understand how courageous she is?," Ghazzawi asked in the post titled "Fadwa Suleiman represents me." "Do you understand how much she is in danger right now? She’s fighting for a value, she’s fighting for a whole different Syria."
Sammonds said the fact that Ghazzawi was blogging and tweeting under her real name for a period of time would have gotten her name onto a black list at the borders.
-- Alexandra Sandels
Photo: Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi, who was arrested last week by Syrian authorities, speaks during a conference on youth journalism by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in Cairo in this file photo from May. Credit: Handout / Reuters