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Syria: New crackdown on government opponents

Syria: New crackdown on government opponents

Reacting to a recent wave of arrests of activists and others in Syria and yesterday's sentencing of a civil society activist to five years in prison, Amnesty International today called on the Syrian government to immediately release all those arrested for peacefully expressing their opinions.

"This new crackdown on suspected government opponents is deeply troubling," said Malcolm Smart, Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa programme. "We are particularly concerned that many of these people are being held in incommunicado detention, where they are at risk of torture."

Scores have been arrested from across the social and political spectrum in Syria in recent months -- including Kurds, Islamists, human rights activists, writers, students and leftists -- while others have been harshly sentenced after unfair trials. At least several hundred political prisoners remain detained in Syria, many of whom are prisoners of conscience. Most were sentenced by the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) or Military Court, both of which suffer from a gross lack of independence and impartiality. The political and social life in the country is strictly controlled by the Ba'th Party, which has maintained a State of Emergency in Syria for 43 years.

Those held incommunicado are at high risk of torture and ill treatment, which is common in Syrian interrogation and detention centres.

Yesterday, civil society activist Riyad Drar was sentenced to five years in prison by the SSSC, whose trial procedures are grossly unfair, due to a speech he gave at the funeral of Kurdish Sheikh Muhammad Ma'shuq al-Khiznaw. Al-Khiznaw was killed by suspected government agents on 30 May 2005, days after he "disappeared".

Also yesterday, the SSSC sentenced 'Abd al-Sattar Qattan to death for membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organisation. The court then commuted the sentence to 12 years in prison.

"We are also seeing a pattern of intimidation on the part of the authorities that involves the arrest, usually for a period of up to several days, of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists," said Malcolm Smart. "We call on the Syrian authorities to release immediately those held for their involvement in human rights-promoting activities, for their peaceful beliefs and for the peaceful expression of their opinions."

Recent arrests and sentences include:

On 31 March, the writer Muhammad Ghanem was arrested at his house by agents of Military Intelligence and taken to an unknown location. Muhammad Ghanem is well-known for his internet writings, particularly on the issue of Syrian Kurds.

On 28 March it was reported that three students -- Muhammad Osama Kash, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sherif and Huseyn Rajeb al-'Abood -- were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment by the SSSC due to their 'Islamist' identity.Journalist 'Ali al-'Abdullah and his son Muhammad 'Ali al-'Abdullah were arrested on 23 March and remain held incommunicado at an unknown location. It is thought their detention may be linked to their participation in the weekly demonstration that occurs outside the SSSC when it is in session. Another of 'Ali al-'Abdullah's sons, 'Omar, is one of eight students being held incommunicado, reportedly at the Air Force Intelligence Branch the town of Harasta, near Damascus, because of their alleged involvement in a small, pro-democracy youth movement. The eight students were arrested at various dates since 26 January.

On 19 March, the SSSC handed down seven-year sentences to two Kurds and two-and-a-half-year sentences to three Kurds convicted of "membership of an unauthorised organisation" and "attempting to annex part of Syrian territory to another state". These charges are routinely levied against Syrian Kurdish activists.

On 20 March, scores of Syrian Kurds were arrested -- and most remain held at unknown locations -- following Nowruz (the lunar 'New Year') celebrations in Aleppo that were forcefully dispersed by the security forces.

Other human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists arrested for short periods in recent days include Michel Kilo, Fida al-Hurani, Aktham Nu'ayse, Hassan 'Abd al-'Aziz, Suleyman Yusef, Najati Tayyara, Samir al-Nashar, 'Abd al-Razaq 'Eid, Muhammad Walid al-Kabeer and Dr 'Ammar Qurabi.

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