Damascus Declaration signatories go on trial

A number of renowned pro-democracy activists and signatories of the Damascus Declaration, an appeal advocating reform in Syria, were brought before a Damascus court this week. Among them were two journalists.
syria handcuffs


The defendants in the trial are being charged with 'publishing false information', 'membership of a secret organization aimed at destabilizing the state' and 'attacking the prestige of the state'.

They are comprised of some of Syria's leading opposition players, including Akram Al-Bunni, Secretary-General of the Damascus Declaration, Fida'a Al-Horani, President of the Executive Bureau of the National Council of Declaration, and members Ahmad To'meh, Jaber, Al-Shufi, Mohammed Darwish, Marwan Al-Aashi, Walid Bunni, Mohammad Yasser. Two journalists, Fayez Sara and Ali Abdallah, have also been charged in the case.

The lobbyists were reportedly charged under articles 285, 286, 306 and 307 of the Syrian criminal code and now face between three and 15 years in prison.

"I think they risk between three to five years in prison. Not more," Radwan Ziadeh of the Damascus Center for Human Rights told APN.

According to defense lawyer Khalil Maatuk, the defendants denied all charges.

Mohamad al-Abdallah, son of one of the defendants, Ali Abdallah, told APN that he 'fully expected the charges'.

"In fact, I am surprised no one was kidnapped off the street or murdered," said Abdallah, adding that eight of the ten activists were reportedly severely beaten while in custody, with one of the accused suffering damage to his ears.

Al-Abdallah also claims that the public prosecutor denied the defense lawyers access to documents detailing the criminal charges brought against his father and the others.

A few hours after attending the hearing, Riad Seif, President of the General Secretariat of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, was arrested by Syrian state security officials. According to a report from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Seif was questioned and detained under the same charges as the activists. He is currently held in the Adra prison outside Damascus.

"Seif was on top of the list. I think [the authorities] waited to arrest him because they knew they would face international pressure for taking him," argued Ziadeh.

The recent clampdown on Syria's opposition have sparked strong concern among several international rights groups including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"President Bashar al-Assad led people to believe that a page had been turned when he took office in June 2000. He spoke of his desire to modernize the state and actively combat corruption. Several political activists and journalists felt sufficiently confident to call for an end to the state of emergency and a return to the rule of law. But the spring was short-lived and arbitrary arrests soon resumed under the new regime. The Damascus Declaration's signatories are the latest victims," RSF said in a recent press release.

The defendants were arrested in early December in what rights groups refer to as a 'countrywide crackdown' against attendees of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, a meeting comprised of a wide array of opposition groups and political activists demanding democratic reform in Syria.

More than 170 activists associated with the Damascus Declaration reportedly attended the December 1 gathering to elect a new executive committee. On December 9, around forty signatories of the Declaration were arrested by state security. The majority of them were released a few hours later but ten high-ranking members were kept in custody.

"This is the third serious wave of activist crackdowns in Syria in the seven years since the Damascus Spring," said Ziadeh.

[Editor's Note: The Damascus Spring was a period of intense political and social debate in Syria which started after the death of President Hafiz al-Asad in June 2000 and continued to some degree until autumn 2001, when most of the activities associated with it were suppressed by the government.]

The defendants in Monday's trial were ordered into pre-trial detention and are being held at the Adra prison, except for al-Horani who is in custody at the Duma jail for women. It is unknown when the next court session in the case will be held.

According to Ziadeh, who has been in touch with many of the family members of the detained activists, the families remain 'optimistic' about the fate of their loved ones.

Alexandra Salens is a Swedish freelance journalist based in Cairo.

This article was republished with permission from The Arab Press Network (APN), a web portal by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN).