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Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Syria

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Author Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Syria, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 1 June 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political context

The state of emergency that was imposed in 1962 remained in force in 2007, officially to ensure political stability and national security. The security context justifies daily checks and restrictions on Syrian citizens, especially civil society. Furthermore, the re-election of President Bashar Al-Assad for a second term in May 2007 with 97% of the vote, as well as legislative elections held in April 2007, confirmed the lack of pluralistic electoral life.

Although State intervention has led to the dissolution of political parties and independent associations, as well as to the control of all activities through coercive policies, the vitality of civil society has nonetheless experienced a revival, with the number of these organisations increasing between 2004 and 2007. In this context, on October 16, 2005, a broad coalition of activists for political reform issued the "Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change", calling for the establishment of a political system that would respect the rights of citizens, ensure freedoms of expression and association, and put an end to discrimination based on religious or political grounds. Moreover, in May 2006, the Beirut-Damascus Declaration was signed by over 300 intellectuals and human rights defenders in Syria and Lebanon, calling for improved relations between the two countries.

Despite this dynamism, freedoms of expression and association continued to be strictly limited. A number of journalists and correspondents, including bloggers and cyber-dissidents, were arrested and harassed in 2007, in a context where the regime has continued to monopolise all media and the Internet. Furthermore, Syrian authorities use the pretext of national security to justify their stranglehold on the judiciary and the use of laws and practices that discriminate against various players in society, such as women, Islamists, or the Kurdish minority. In the name of national security, the authorities also justify the use of torture and ill-treatment inflicted with impunity on prisoners.

Refusal to register human rights organisations

Several human rights organisations were still unregistered in 2007 because of the systematic refusal of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, in a context where the continued application of laws on the state of emergency means that registration reinforces the legal protection of human rights activists since any unregistered organisation could be prosecuted for violating various provisions restricting freedoms. Members of these organisations are still operating unlawfully, under the constant threat of being prosecuted and imprisoned on the basis of Article 71 of Act No. 93 on Associations, adopted in 1958 and under which all activity by an unreported association is punishable by three months' imprisonment and a fine. In addition, Article 288 of the Syrian Criminal Code provides for a sentence of up to three years' imprisonment against any person who, "without Government authorisation, becomes a member of a political or social organisation with an international character". Thus, the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria (NOHR-S), which had submitted an application for registration to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour on April 4, 2006 and had been notified by Decree of refusal of registration (without reasoned opinion) on August 30, 2006,1 has filed an appeal on December 27, 2006 against the Decree. The case was not resolved in 2007, as the Ministry requested five consecutive reports in order for the court to conclude.

Heavy prison sentences for human rights defenders by the Damascus Criminal Court

In 2007, many human rights defenders were sentenced by the Damascus Criminal Court.2 For example, Mr. Anwar Al-Bunni, Director of the Damascus Centre for Legal Studies and President of the Committee for the Defence of Political Prisoners, and Mr. Michel Kilo, President of the Organisation for the Defence of Freedom of Speech and Press, were arrested in mid-May 2006 by security and intelligence forces after they signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. They were sentenced on May 13, 2007 respectively for "disseminating false or exaggerated information to weaken the spirit of the nation" and "weakening national ethics", to sentences of five and three years' imprisonment. Moreover, Mr. Kamal Labwani was arrested in April 2005 and sentenced in May 2007 by the Damascus Criminal Court to 12 years' imprisonment for "communicating with a foreign country and inciting to undertake an aggression against Syria" after a visit by U. S. officials in 2005.3

Wave of arrests of members of the Initiative for the Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change

On December 9, 2007, Syrian security services conducted a series of arrests targeting more than forty activists in several cities in Syria in response to a meeting organised by the Initiative for the Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change on December 1, 2007. The meeting brought together 163 people in Damascus and led to the creation of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, a collective movement that brings together political opponents but also human rights defenders. The arrests particularly targeted several members of the Committees for the Revitalisation of Civil Society in Syria, including Mr. Fayez Sara, a journalist, Mr. Mohammed Haj Darwish, a member of the Association of Human Rights in Syria, Mr. Jaber Al-Shoufi, Mr. Akram al-Bunni and Mr. Ali Al-Abdullah. All were charged on January 28, 2008 for having violated several provisions of the Syrian Criminal Code, particularly Sections 285 and 286 (on "the weakening of national sentiment"), 304, 306 and 327 (on the illegal activities of associations) and 307 (relating to racial hatred and inciting sectarianism). Some of these provisions provide for imprisonment sentences of at least seven years.

Likewise, on April 24, and May 14, 2007, the European Union Presidency "expresse[d] its regret that Anwar Al-Bunni, a prominent Syrian human rights defender, was sentenced to five years of detention in Damascus on 24 April 2007 for having disseminated human rights-related material", "expresse[d] its profound concern over the three-year prison terms to which Michel Kilo, a Syrian intellectual, and Mahmoud Issa, a Syrian political activist, were sentenced by a criminal Court in Damascus on 13 May, 2007", and stated that it was "deeply concerned by the repeated harassment of human rights defenders in Syria".

Obstacles to freedom of movement

In 2007, several Syrian human rights defenders were faced with many obstacles to their freedom of movement in order to prevent them from attending regional or international workshops. For example, on January 11, 2007, security forces prevented Mr. Akram Al-Bunni from leaving Syria to attend a meeting in Belgium with representatives of the European Union to discuss the situation of human rights and human rights defenders in Syria. No official reason was provided. Likewise, Mr. Jihad Msoti, a member of the discussion forum Al-Atassi, created to promote the democratisation of the country, was arrested in November 2007, at the same time as several other Syrian human rights defenders, while attempting to travel to Cairo, Egypt, to attend a workshop organised by FIDH. Mr. Radeef Mustafa, President of the Kurdish Committee on Human Rights, Mr. Mustafa Ouso, Director of the Kurdish Defence Organisation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Syria, and Mr. Masho Hasan, a member of the Executive Office of the Organisation of Human Rights in Syria, Mr. Khalil Maatouk and Mr. Muhannad al-Husni, lawyers defending human rights, have also been prevented from leaving the international airport of Damascus and thus participating in the workshop. For his part, Dr. Ammar Qurabi, President of the NOHR-S, was banned from travelling to Jordan, on November 19, 2007, to participate in a seminar on "the role of civil society organisations in political reforms in the Arab World," organised by the Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies and the Aspen Institute of Berlin, without explanation being provided.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 The NOHR-S appealed for clemency from the Ministry, which was also refused on November 2, 2006 and November 7, 2006.

2 In this regard, the European Parliament, in its Resolution P6_TA (2007) 0217 adopted on May 24, 2007, expressed in particular "its great concern at the recent verdict handed down to political prisoners and human rights activists in Syria which affects every political trend of the opposition" and "urge[d] the relevant Syrian bodies to reverse the abovementioned judgment, drop the charges still pending in the Military Court of Damascus and release all the abovementioned prisoners of conscience and political prisoners".

3 See Observatory Annual Report 2006.

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