Syrian democracy activists face 15 years in prison

Syrian democracy activists face 15 years in prison


Twelve Syrian democracy activists are currently facing up to 15 years in prison for demanding democratic reform and human rights. The activists have been detained since December 2007 and January 2008, after organizing a meeting of the opposition grouping, the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change. Tens of other participants were arrested but later released without charge.

The activists are charged with “weakening national sentiment”, “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”, joining “an organization formed with the purpose of changing the financial or social status of the state” and “inciting sectarian strife”.

Proceedings have been marked by serious irregularities, Amnesty International reports:

The 12 activists were initially held incommunicado in Damascus by the State Security Branch for up to several weeks, during which time most have said that they were beaten and coerced into signing false “confessions”. Their access to lawyers has been restricted, while the lawyers themselves have been denied copies of the case file.

On 1 December 2007, around 170 members held a meeting to elect the leadership of the DDDNC National Council; Feda’a al-Horani was elected president, while Akram al-Bunni and Ahmad To’meh were both elected to the senior position of secretary.

All three were arrested when police raided the meeting, along with Dr Walid al-Bunni; literature teacher and literary critic Jabr al-Shoufi; journalist ‘Ali al-’Abdullah; writer Fayez Sarah; Dr Yasser al-’Eit;, People’s Democratic Party member Muhammed Haji Darwish; engineer Marwan al-‘Ush; former member of parliament Riad Seif and artist Talal Abu Dan.

The Damascus Declaration brought together a coalition of political parties, human rights organizations and pro-democracy activists in October 2005 at a time when the Baathist regime was under considerable international pressure. UN investigator Detlev Mehlis implicated senior officials close to President Bashar al-Assad in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.

Liberal democrats joined with leftists, Islamists and Kurds in signing the declaration in an attempt to give the lie to international claims that Syria lacked “any coherent, organized opposition.” Several internal and exiled groups signed the declaration which calls on democratic forces, including Ba’athist reformers or “people of the regime,” to undertake “a salvation task of change that takes the country from being a security state to a civil state.” Signatories reject “change coming from the outside” but promise “to do whatever is necessary to launch a process of democratic change.”

The diversity of the signatories is as significant as its content, with Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood joining the leftist-nationalist Democratic National Gathering, the Committees for Civil Society Revival, the Democratic Kurdish Alliance, the Democratic Kurdish Front, and the Future (Al-Mustaqbal) Party. Several prominent dissidents also signed, including imprisoned parliamentarian Riad Seif.

As one analysis notes, Assad’s regime has been fortunate with its domestic opposition:  

Secular left-wingers, social democrats, liberals, even Kurds and supporters of political Islam – they all call for peaceful, gradual change from within and they all reject any idea of foreign intervention. What more could an authoritarian regime possibly want than such a moderate opposition?

The opposition seeks step-by-step democratisation, including a new law allowing independent political parties.

Syria has a long history of democracy, says Radwan Ziadeh, founder and former director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies. “There was free media, an independent parliament, and strong democratic institutions. When the Ba’ath party came to power in 1963, all of these institutions were destroyed.”

A verdict on the 12 activists currently facing trial is expected on 29 October.