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Jailed Dissidents Await Ruling on Release Order

(21-Nov-08)
By IWPR
A final decision is expected on November 25 on whether imprisoned political activists Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa should be released, after a judge’s ruling that they should walk free was ignored.



In May 2007, a criminal court in Damascus sentenced Kilo, a prominent journalist, and Issa, a translator, to three years in prison for “weakening national sentiment” and “inciting sectarian strife”.



They had been arrested in May and October 2006, respectively, after signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, a petition calling for improved relations between Lebanon and Syria.



Lawyers requested that the men be freed, arguing that the time they had already spent in detention made them eligible for a legal provision permitting early release on completion of three-quarters of a sentence, but a Damascus court rejected this on August 20.



However, this decision was in turn overturned by an appeals court judge on November 2, who cleared the way for their immediate release.



“When the court [judge] issued that decision, Mr Kilo was told by the prison administration to pack so that he’d be ready for his release,” said a lawyer based in Damascus, who asked to remain anonymous. “We waited all of that day and the next, but nothing happened.”



He added, “We felt that something was going wrong, since it wouldn’t have been the first time a decision by security agencies had suspended a judicial ruling.”



That suspicion turned out to be well-founded. On November 4, the prosecution service filed an appeal against the judge’s ruling, and Issa and Kilo remain in the al-Adra prison.



“Kilo is one of the most prominent intellectuals in the country, and he is also known in many Arabic and western countries, which have continued to ask for his freedom,” said the lawyer.



He suspects that one of the motivations behind the authorities’ reluctance to let Kilo out of jail might be an allegation that surfaced last year in the state newspaper al-Thawra that the dissident had received funding from the March 14 Alliance, a political bloc in Lebanon that has a hostile relationship with Damascus.



“It could still be this same reason,” he said. “But it could also be a message to the entire [community of] independent and opposition opinion that dissidents will pay the full price.”



The appeals judge’s decision that Issa and Kilo could walk free appears to have thrown the official media into some disarray. Initially, pro-government media like Al-Watan newspaper and the Syria News website reported the judge’s ruling.



However, when it became clear that the prosecutor was contesting it, some media outlets backtracked. Syria News and another pro-regime website, Damas Post, carried a report on November 8 which cited an anonymous judicial source as saying that the appeals court never issued such a decision at all.



Opposition groups continue to lobby for the release of Issa and Kilo. The Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change – the largest opposition coalition in Syria – published an open letter on November 17 urging the appeals court’s general council to uphold and enforce the release order, so as to “to safeguard justice and the honour of the judiciary”.



Twelve leading members of the Damascus Declaration received two-and-a half-year jail terms on October 29.



The next step in the legal process is a full plenary session of the appeals court, scheduled for November 25, at which the judge’s ruling and the prosecutor’s counter-argument will be reviewed.



Michel Shammas, a leading Syrian lawyer, is concerned that if the forthcoming session overturns the release order, there will be no further avenue of appeal, and the defence teams of Kilo and Issa will have to start all over again.



(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)