HRF Condemns Long Prison Term for Leading Syrian Human Rights Lawyer
New York- A criminal court in Damascus today convicted and sentenced human rights lawyer and activist Anwar al-Bunni to five years in prison on the charge of “disseminating false information likely to undermine the morale of the nation in wartime.” The court also ordered al-Bunni to pay one hundred thousand Syrian pounds (approximately US $ 2000) as damages to the Ministry of Social Affairs for “carrying out activities in an organization that has not been legally authorized.”
Human Rights First strongly condemns this harsh, unjust sentencing of a leading human rights defender. “With this heavy sentence the Syrian government aims to punish al-Bunni for his peaceful human rights activities and to deter others in the Syrian human rights community,” said Maureen Byrnes, Executive Director of Human Rights First.
“Exposing and denouncing the government’s violations and promoting human rights are the only ‘crimes’ committed by Anwar al-Bunni” added Byrnes.
Reacting to the sentence, al-Bunni told the court: “the charge brought against me is a mockery and the sentence is merely an attempt to silence me and prevent me from denouncing the government’s human rights practices,” according to a family member who attended the hearing this morning.
Al-Bunni was arrested on May 17, 2006 as part of a large crackdown on the signatories of the Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut Declaration, a public statement that called for better relations between Lebanon and Syria. Since his arrest al-Bunni has been detained in harsh conditions at Adra Prison near Damascus. Last January, al-Bunni was subjected to physical abuse by prison guards.
On October 9, 2006, an investigating magistrate charged al-Bunni with “disseminating false information likely to undermine the morale of the nation in wartime,” “slandering and insulting state institutions,” and “joining an international group without the government’s authorization.” The first two charges are related to al-Bunni’s criticism of the use of torture by security forces and his calls for democracy and reform in Syria. The latter charge is connected to the formation of a center for human rights training in Syria funded by the European Union. Al-Bunni briefly ran the center that was closed down by the authorities in March 2006 before it had even started its activities.
Al-Bunni’s lawyer Mr. Khalil Maatouk told Human Rights First: “the verdict against my client is political as was his trial.” “The Judiciary has nothing to do with this verdict: it was delivered by the Syrian government,” added Maatouk.
For Anwar al-Bunni’s brother, writer and human rights defender Akram al-Bunni “the Syrian government clearly said to the Syrian people and the world today that it could not care less about human rights and about its international obligations.”
Human Rights First has called on the Syrian government to fulfill its obligations under international law to immediately and unconditionally release Anwar al-Bunni and other imprisoned human rights defenders and non-violent activists, including Aref Dalilah, Michel Kilo, Mahmud Issa and Kamal al-Labwani who are being detained and prosecuted for exercising their basic rights and freedoms.