Syria sentences Damascus Declaration dissidents to 2.5 years

Twelve prominent Syrian dissidents were sentenced to 2.5 years in prison each on Wednesday for "inciting sectarian strife." The convicted activists are all members of the so-called Damascus Declaration, a group calling for radical democratic change in Syria.
Damascus declaration
Damascus Declaration.

BEIRUT, October 28, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Twelve jailed dissidents who took part in a pro-democracy rally at the end of 2007 were sentenced today to 2.5 years in prison by a Syrian court.

The twelve include author Ali Abdallah, former member of parliament Riyadh Seif, and the group's leader Fidaa Horani.

All had originally been handed down a six-year prison sentence, but the judge reportedly reduced the sentence without giving a reason.

Mazen Darwish, who runs the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, was at today's trial in Damascus.

He told MENASSAT that the session lasted less than ten minutes and that the courtroom was packed with human rights workers and foreign reporters. Numerous diplomats also attended the trial, including representatives from The Netherlands and Canada.

Mohammad Al-Abdallah, son of the imprisoned writer Ali Abdallah, told MENASSAT that the sentence was expected, although he said the jail time was excessive.

"It was a political trial. The detainees expected it. But 2.5 years is a lot. They should have not been sentenced in the first place. They didn't do anything wrong," he said.

December crackdown

The activists were arrested in December 2007 and January 2008 following their participation in the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, a forum comprised of several opposition groups and political activists seeking to gather internal support for democratic change in Syria through peaceful means.

More than 150 activists affiliated with the Damascus Declaration reportedly attended the gathering. A few days following the meeting, around 40 signatories of the Declaration were arrested by state security forces.

The majority of the arrested were soon released, but a number of high-ranking members were kept in custody. They were subsequently charged with "spreading false information" and "belonging to a secret organization promoting sectarian strife."

The dissidents have been kept in detainment since their arrests last year.

Syria has made strides to improve its public image recently, and Damascus was selected by UNESCO this year to be the Arab Cultural Capital.

But with dozens of members of the country's political opposition entering jail, activists and observers raise the question whether the government is in fact only tightening its grip on its opponents.

"The efforts taken by the government and negotiations... It's just putting some make-up on a really ugly face beneath," one Syrian activist told MENASSAT.

For Al-Abdallah, Wednesday's sentence was a clear message from the Syrian regime.

"They will continue the repression and crackdowns on human rights activists here. It was the security services that gave them the sentence," he told MENASSAT.

The crackdown on the members of the Damascus Declaration is similar to what happened to the signatories of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration/Damascus-Beirut Declaration, a 2006 statement calling for improvement of Syrian-Lebanese relations.

Just like the Damascus Declaration, this petition also attracted hundreds of signatories and resulted in prison sentences for the top members.

Shortly after signing the petition, Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni was given a five-year prison sentence for "spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation." Writer Michel Kilo was sentenced to three years in prison in spring 2007.