Syria: Free speech quelled by “kangaroo courts”

In an extensive report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the organization documents how Syria’s State Security Court (SSSC) has prosecuted 150 people on the basis of ambiguous charges that criminalize freedom of expression. Those prosecuted in these “sham” trials include ten bloggers and eight citizens accused of "insulting the Syrian president" in private conversations.
Syrian riot police officers stand guard as a mother carries a placard demanding the release of her son from jail in front of the State Security Court on April 24, 2005 in Damascus, Syria. © Getty Images

BEIRUT, February 25, 2009 (MENASSAT) – New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on Tuesday (February 24) accusing Syria of setting up a bogus court to try dissidents for exercising their right to speak out against the Syrian regime.

The 73-page long report - “Far from Justice” -  calls for the abolition of what HRW calls a "kangaroo court" that between January 2007 and June 2008 launched legal suits against more than 150 Syrians, including poets, writers, and Kurdish activists, using vaguely defined security laws to prosecute those viewed as posing a “threat to the state.”

One of the accused, 24-year old Syrian blogger Tariq Biasi was arrested in a security service sweep in the summer of 2007.

Biasi posted a comment criticizing the Syrian state security services on an Internet forum and was arrested a few days later without being charged with a crime.

"Defendents have no chance of defending themselves..."

In May 2008, the SSSC in Damascus handed Biasi a 3-year jail sentence for the six-word long critique he had posted on the web site “I am a Muslim," claiming he had been “weakening the national sentiment.”

Although several writers and rights activists have been put on trial by the SSSC, most of the defendants at these special trials have been labeled by the state as “Islamists,” according to the HRW report.

The HRW report also suggested that the campaign was widespread and affected ordinary citizens.

“The State Security Court is one of Syria’s main pillars of repression…It’s a kangaroo court providing judicial cover for the persecution of activists, and even ordinary citizens, by Syria’s security agencies," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

"Defendants have no chance of defending themselves, much less proving their innocence against the bogus charges brought against them.”

According to HRW’s review of the more than 200 SSSC decisions issued between January 2007 and June 2008, the SSSC convicted 153 people on the basis of two of four provisions in the Syrian penal code:

Article 278 makes it illegal to engage in "acts, writings, or speech unauthorized by the government that expose Syria to the danger of belligerent acts or that disrupt Syria's ties to foreign states,” and Article 285 makes it illegal to “weaken national sentiment or awaken racial or sectarian tensions while Syria is at war or is expecting a war.”

HRW’s report contends these articles are so “broadly articulated” that “peaceful activities and free expression” can be prosecuted by the SSSC under the pretext of protecting national security or, as was the case with Baisi, “weakening national sentiment.”

Bloggers, writers and café dissidents

In some of the more high-profile jail sentences, 10 Syrian writers and bloggers were prosecuted by the SSSC on “broad criminal provisions” between early 2007 and summer 2008.

All 10 were jailed for their online criticism of the Syrian regime, HRW reported.

In June 2007, the SSSC referred seven young men, Husam Melhem, Tariq al-Ghourani, Ayham Saqr, Ulam Fakhour, Maher Ibrahim Asper, Omar al-Abdullah, and Diab Siriya to prison terms varying from 5 to 7 years for "taking action or making a written statement or speech which could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country, or expose it to the risk of hostile action."

The group had set up a discussion group for young Syrians and had published a number of articles on their Internet forum, which criticized corruption and graft within the Syrian government.

In April 2008, the SSSC sent poet Firas Sa`ad, 38, to jail for four years under Article 285. 

Sa’ad’s crime? Publishing articles on the website "Al-hiwar al-Mutamaddin," defending the 2006 Beirut-Damascus Declaration, a statement calling for improved relations between Syria and Lebanon, and posing criticism towards the Syrian army.

Currently, 29-year old Karim `Arbaji, the moderator of the web-based Syrian youth forum,, is facing charges by the SSSC for "spreading false information that may weaken national sentiment."

Writers critical of the Syrian authorities are not the only ones who have found themselves tangled up with the SSSC.

Criticizing the higher authorities in private conversations can even get you into trouble, HRW said.

HRW cited the case of 67-year Muhamad Al-Hussein who was sent to jail for criticizing corruption in Syria during group conversations at a Damascus café.

According to HRW, a police informant overheard Al-Hussein's statements and turned him in. The charge: “Insulting the Syrian president."

Apartment court

The HRW report severely criticized the SSSC court location, as well as the SSSC's questionable courtroom procedures over the last two years.

Located in a flat on the first floor of a building on Ayyar Street in Damascus, HRW’s report claims that the President of the court, Fayez al-Nuri, has taken to holding court sessions in his own private office rather than in the actual trial room.

HRW reports that the SSSC court sessions are not open to the public and the families of detainees cannot attend the sessions.

As well, the decisions of the SSSC cannot be appealed to a higher tribunal, as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Syria signed onto in 1969.

Instead, HRW says that the SSSC is under the control of the executive branch and the ratification of the verdicts of the security court rests with the head of state, who can nullify the verdict, order a retrial, or lessen the sentence.

The HRW report also notes that the SSSC had suspended any new legal activities in July 2008 following the Syrian security forces’ brutal quashing of a prison rebellion in Sadnaya prison.

Nadim Houry, Senior Researcher working on Lebanon and Syria for HRW told MENASSAT that the court had given no formal reason why it had suspended its activities, but said it was likely due to the sensitivity of the cases related to the Sednaya prison riots.