Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Syria jails human rights activist Anwar Al-Bunni

Anwar Al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights and pro-democracy advocate, has been sentenced to five years in prison by a Syrian court for the crime of “spreading hostile information.” Bunni was arrested in May of 2006 and has been held in detention ever since. According to Amnesty International, “Anwar Al-Bunni was arrested along with 10 other people for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, a petition calling for the normalisation of relations between Syria and Lebanon. Since his arrest on 17 May 2006, he has been detained at ‘Adra prison, near Damascus, where he has been subjected to bad treatment.”

“The court convicted him of spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale, affiliating with an unlicensed political association with an international nature, discrediting state institutions and contacting a foreign country, his lawyer Khalil Matouk said,” according to the BBC.

This from the International Herald Tribune:
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: Syrian court Tuesday sentenced a prominent human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, to five years in prison for "spreading false information damaging the country," his attorneys said, handing down one of the harshest sentences in the Syrian regime's yearlong crackdown on opposition.

An attorney for Bunni, Razan Zaitounah, said the Damascus criminal court had sentenced Bunni for "spreading false information" about torture in Syrian prisons, about which Bunni had written and been interviewed.

In addition to the prison sentence, Bunni was ordered to pay a $2,000 fine for operating his Center for Development for Civil Society - started in 2006 with help from a European Union grant - without official permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor.

"This is against human rights, and it's not only an unjust verdict for Anwar - it's an unjust verdict for the Syrian nation," said Ragheda Issa, Bunni's wife, speaking by telephone Tuesday evening.

But most of all, Bunni's attorneys and many analysts said, the verdict appeared to be a stark warning to the Syrian opposition.

Bunni's prison sentence far exceeded the typical three years other Syrians convicted on the same charges have received, further underscoring the political nature of the ruling, Bunni's attorneys and Syrian analysts said.

"It was a message to the entire opposition movement: Pursue democracy, get punished," said Razan Zaitounah, an attorney on Bunni's defense team.

Witnesses said the courtroom was hushed as the judge read the verdict Tuesday morning, then erupted in shock at the harshness of the sentence.

"It's not a matter of what Anwar did; the regime is trying to send a message to the opposition movement, and that is: 'Shut up!,' " said Yassin Hajj Salih, a columnist and analyst linked to the opposition who attended the court session Tuesday. "The regime wants activists to be afraid, to be careful of what they do."

Bunni, who has himself represented numerous opposition figures in the past and who has been jailed several times, has often drawn the ire of the government for his work as the director of the legal rights center, financed partly by the European Union, which was established by a Belgian nongovernmental organization. The center was closed after his arrest.

Syria has long been intolerant of political opposition, in the past jailing critics of the regime for 10- and 15-year sentences. But when Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his late father, Hafez, in 2000, the government released many opposition figures from prison and sought to be more lenient with those who spoke out.

However, under growing international pressure amid allegations of Syrian collusion in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005, as well as allegations by the Bush administration that Syria had aided militants seeking to enter Iraq through Syria, the government began to crack down on dissent early last year.

Bunni is the first among several opposition figures on trial to be convicted. Michel Kilo, a columnist and government critic who openly argued for a change of policy on Lebanon, was arrested shortly before Bunni in May, too, as was another columnist, Mahmoud Issa.

The men were rounded up after they signed a petition calling for a radical overhaul of Syria's relations with neighboring Lebanon.

Human rights groups said Tuesday that the verdict showed the lack of concern for human rights in Syria.
"The Syrian government has just reminded the entire world that it has absolutely no respect for the rights of its citizens to express themselves freely," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division.

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