Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Prominent Dissidents Sentenced to Prison

Twelve prominent activists who advocate for reform in Syria were sentenced to two and a half years in prison this week.

The leaders of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change – the largest opposition coalition in Syria – were sentenced on October 29 under criminal legislation that prohibits “spreading false news” and “weakening national sentiment”.

The trial took place at the First Criminal Court in Damascus. Sentencing was completed within 20 minutes, according to the international watchdog Human Rights Watch, which attended the session.

Human rights activists and family members packed the courtroom and applauded the prisoners, who held hands and chanted "freedom for Syria, democracy for Syria" during the proceedings.

Fida al-Hourani, who chairs the group and was the only woman convicted, was segregated from the men, who were confined in a cage.

"It was a big moment, and somehow a victorious one,” said a writer and human rights activist based in Damascus who asked not to be named. “When an entire regime feels afraid of individuals who have nothing but their faith and voices, and when they and others insist on continuing what they've started in spite of all of the repression, that is a victory for freedom".

Representatives of several western embassies including Germany, The Netherlands and the United States attended the hearing.

The 12 leading activists were arrested after they participated in a meeting of the Damascus Declaration’s National Council. Some were detained in December and others the following month. The arrests drew condemnation from western governments and international human rights groups, which called for the detainees to be released.

The White House condemned the sentences on October 30, four days after the US conducted a raid inside Syria that Damascus said killed eight civilians. US officials said the raid near the Iraqi border targeted a top al-Qaida operative who was smuggling weapons and fighters into Iraq.

"This judgement once again underscores the Syrian regime's contempt for the fundamental rights and freedoms of their people," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement. "The Syrian regime cannot expect to be treated as a respected member of the international community when it engages in such systematic repression of its own citizens."

Defence lawyers said they would appeal against the verdict at the Supreme Court within the next 30 days.

Radif Mustafa, head of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights in Syria, said the verdicts were only to be expected, and were “completely unfair”.

For many, the immediate question is how these sentences will affect the Damascus Declaration and Syrian opposition movements generally.

Abdulaziz al-Khayer, a Damascus Declaration leader who has spent 14 years in prison for his political activities, said it was too soon to tell what impact the trial would have on the group, but added there had been “many signs over the past year indicating that the authorities are getting tougher on people who hold dissident views”.

Another Damascus Declaration leader, who asked to remain anonymous, said the trial "sends a negative message to all democratic movements that the authorities won’t allow any democratic peaceful activities".

"The world is changing all around us, and the regime insists on coping with everything by applying an old, failed mentality that denies any free or independent voices," he said.

In addition to Hourani, the 12 leaders convicted are Ahmed Tohme, Akram al-Bunni, Ali al-Abdullah, Jaber al-Shufi, Yasser al-Eiti, Fayez Sarah, Walid al-Bunni, Mohammed Haji Darwish, Marwan al-Esh, Talal Abu Dan and Riad Seif.

Supporters of the 12 say Seif, a former member of parliament, has prostate cancer.

(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.)

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