World demands release of Syrian political activists

Syria is cracking down on political activists after a Dec. 1 opposition gathering. Human Rights Watch and others are demanding their release.
By Staff
syrian prison

The latest crackdown in Syria came after a protest on December 1 in which a total of 163 people attended the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, a gathering of numerous opposition groups and activists calling for democratic reforms in Syria.

Earlier this week, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said five people were arrested over the weekend – Ahmad Tohme, Jaber al-Shoufi, Akram al-Bunni, Fidaa al-Hourani and Ali Abdullah. On Monday, two more activists were arrested, doctors Walid Al-Bunni and Mohammad Yasser Al-Eitti, the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said, bringing the total number of detainees to seven.

The Damascus Declaration calls for radical change in Syria, and is composed of communist, nationalist, liberal and Kurdish parties.

Some of the detainees are old hands at political protest in Syria, and they have suffered much at the hands of the regime. Akram Al-Bunni spent 17 years of his life behind bars. And writer Ali Abdullah has been jailed three times in the past 13 years. One of Abdullah's sons is serving a five-year sentence for his involvement in a pro-democracy youth group; the other chose exile, having already spent six months in jail.

As usual, the Syrian government has not commented on the arrests, and it is not known what charges - if any - will be brought against the detainees..

Marwan Darwish, the Director of the Center of Information and Freedom of Speech in Syria, told "Tomorrow the Syrian authorities will invent something. Do you think its that hard in Syria?," he asked, adding with a good dose of sarcasm, "They will find an easy way to build this case against Ali Abdullah and the others. They are in jail because of a political decision. Period."

Human Rights Watch has demanded the immediate release of the activists. "The Syrian government claims that it wants to engage with the outside world, but its only engagement with peaceful critics inside the country is with the boot of repression,"  Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director, told AFP. "Calling for democratic and peaceful change should not be treated as a criminal offence."

U.S. president Gorge W. Bush has also called for their release, saying, "the brave men and women who formed this council reflect the desires of the majority of Syrian people to live in freedom, democracy, and peace."

But what good can protests and condemnations from abroad really do in a country like Syria? We put the question to
Nadim Houry, the head of the Human Rights Watch office in Beirut.

"We as an organization have done a lot media-wise with this incident. We asked the Syrian government for the immediate and unconditional release of the detainees", Houry said.

"What I can assure you of is that HRW will never stop asking for their freedom. And we are not going to stop at issuing reports or public condemnations. HRW is also asking the European Parliament to force Syria into an understanding; any future treaties with Europe should be conditional on the release of these people and others like them. This should be the first rule: free them and then we'll talk. But the main problem remains a lack of political will."

"For example, when the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana visits Syria, he doesn't mention the detained activists. Today, the European Union is asking Syria to cooperate with regards to Lebanon and Iraq, but they are forgetting what is happening inside Syria itself."