Targeting of Cyber Dissidents Continues

Three-year jail term for internet postings suggests thaw in Syrian-western relations has yet to translate into changes in domestic policy.

Targeting of Cyber Dissidents Continues

Three-year jail term for internet postings suggests thaw in Syrian-western relations has yet to translate into changes in domestic policy.

Thursday, 26 March, 2009
Although the Syrian authorities have recently begun talking to the West, they are continuing to clamp down on freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to people who express dissident views online, say civil rights groups.

Last week’s sentencing of a so-called “cyber dissident” – the latest in a series of people imprisoned for posting online material critical of the authorities – is being seen as a sign that controls have not been relaxed.

On March 15, journalist Habib Saleh, 62, was given a three-year jail-term after being convicted of “weakening national sentiment” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which could affect the morale of the country”.

Although the Syrian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the Baath regime imposes severe restrictions in practice, invoking an emergency martial law which has been in effect since the Sixties.

Saleh, who does not belong to any political opposition group, was arrested in May 2008 after writing and publishing articles online in which he attacked Syria’s policies in the region and expressed support for prominent opposition figure Riad al-Turk.

A contributor to the site, which is based abroad, Saleh was held for more than a year before his trial.

Following the sentencing, the human rights group Amnesty International called for Saleh’s release, arguing that he was being detained “solely for peacefully expressing his political views”.

He is the latest of at least five people, including poet Feras Saad and blogger Karem Arabji, to be jailed after posting material online, according to Reporters Without Borders, RSF.

In a report issued earlier this month, the press freedom group branded Syria one of 12 countries it regards as “enemies of the internet” because of its repressive policies towards web users.

RSF said arrests linked to online activities are becoming more frequent in Syria and noted that more than 160 websites critical of the government are blocked.

“Every time a Syrian prisoner of conscience is sentenced, it is a sad day for us,” said Saleh's lawyer, Muhannad al-Hasani.

Hasani said that during the trial, the defendant stressed his right to freedom of expression.

“All that I have is my pen. I have neither a militia nor weapons,” Saleh told the judge, according to his lawyer. “The situation in Syria is no longer acceptable in the modern day.”

Saleh has been jailed five times before for voicing dissident views. In May 2005, he was imprisoned for three years as a result of articles published online. He was arrested again soon after completing that sentence.

The latest verdict against Saleh comes at a time when observers have been hoping Syria’s growing detente with the United States might lead to less restrictive practices in the country.

“I think any improvement in relations with the international community could lead to less repression by the regime,” said Syrian opposition figure Faeq al-Meir, who spent more than ten years in jail for his political views and activities.

“The Syrian democratic movement should try to seize this opportunity and push for issues of freedoms and human rights to be placed at the top of the international community’s agenda when it is addressing Syria.”

A Damascus-based analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that despite some calls in the west for Syria to improve its human rights record, this was not a priority for the authorities.

Even when relations between Syria and the West were better than now, the authorities continued to crack down on political opponents, he noted.

He cited the arrest in 2001 of a number of dissidents for issuing the so-called Damascus Spring Declaration – a document that called for greater democracy.

The analyst said western powers were more concerned with Syria’s role in the region, above all its support for militant groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as well as its close relationship with Iran. Damascus was not ready to change these policies without receiving guarantees and incentives from the West, he added.

Still, the recent signs of a rapprochement with western countries have raised hopes that some political prisoners could be released.

The father of a young dissident who has been in prison for the last three years said a rumour had circulated among the parents of political prisoners that President Bashir al-Assad was going to release their sons under an amnesty. The amnesty was expected to take place on March 8, the anniversary of the 1963 Revolution in which the Baath party came to power.

Although this failed to materialise, the man – who requested anonymity – said he remained optimistic that political prisoners would still be released to coincide with some other public occasion. Presidential amnesties usually take place during national celebrations in Syria.

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