Three years for six words



 
Syrian blogger Tariq Baissi will spend the next three years behind bars for posting a six words comment criticizing the Syrian security services on an online forum.
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
tariq 3.jpg
R.R.

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS, May 16, 2008 (MENASSAT) – On May 5, Tariq Baissi was convicted to three years of prison for "weakening the national feeling and the national ethos." The  State Security Court in Damascus cut Baissi's sentence in half from the original six years. Baissi's crime was to have posted six words on the online forum, 'I am a Muslim,' in which he criticized Syria's state security apparatus.

Baissi was detained by military security on July 7, 2007 in his hometown of Tartus. Members of his family have been granted few visits.

"Baissi's father has not been able to visit his son for almost one year now," a Syrian human rights activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity told MENASSAT. The activist had spoken to the blogger's father on Friday and described him as "very upset."

Throughout the trial, Baissi has denied posting the comments, saying that he works in a computer company and has nothing to do with politics. He said the phone line, through which the website was accessed, did not even belong to him but to another resident in the same building. Those claims were rejected by the Syrian government.

Rights groups and Syrian bloggers have condemned the sentencing of Baissi. In a recent press release, the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee said, "Posting a phrase comprised of six words may cost you a six-year prison sentence [in Syria."]

A group calling themselves "the Syrian bloggers" issued a statement in solidarity with Baissi, emphasizing that the sentence "will not cancel the freedom of expression or shut up the voices demanding their rights guaranteed by the Syrian constitution. Tariq will remain the flame that will not be extinguished and he will still serve as a guide for the bloggers."

Because Baissi was not a well-known blogger, it took some time for the case to leak out to the activist community and the international media. But an online support campaign, Free Tariq, was eventually set up by a handful of bloggers, and there is a group on Facebook calling for his release.

Syria has in recent time been accused of clamping down on the Internet. In 2006, press watchdog Reporters Without Borders named Syria one of the world's greatest "Internet enemies." The group referred to Syria as "the Middle East's biggest prison for cyber-dissidents."

Ahed Al-Hendi, a Syrian blogger who was himself arrested in late 2006 for posting critical comments on an online forum, told MENASSAT that the recent clap-down shows that Syrian authorities are afraid of the bloggers.

"The government has definitely become worse in recent time, sentencing bloggers to prison terms just like political activists. That shows how afraid the regime is of the bloggers," Al-Hendi said in an email interview.