As the United Nations, the European Union and America all seek to re-engage with Syria on Lebanon and Iraq, it is worth remembering the situation for writers and human rights activists working in Syria. Exactly a year after his arrest on 14 May 2006, a prominent Syrian writer was jailed for his dissident writing and pro-reform activities.
Michel Kilo is one of ten Syrian civil-society activists who were arrested last year for their support of the ‘Beirut–Damascus Declaration’ of 12 May 2006, which called for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria based on respect for each country’s sovereignty. According to Human Rights Watch, the declaration ‘called on Syria to recognize Lebanon’s independence, highlighted the importance of improving economic ties on the basis of transparency, rejected attempts to impose economic sanctions on the Syrian people, and condemned attacks on Syrian workers in Lebanon’. It was signed by several hundred Syrian and Lebanese nationals and was released the day before a draft resolution produced by America, Britain and France went before the United Nations Security Council calling on Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty.
On 13 May 2007 Kilo was finally charged with ‘spreading false news, weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian sentiments’ and sentenced to three years in prison. He was convicted by the Damascus Criminal Court. Kilo is a writer and journalist who has written for the leading Lebanese daily Al-Nahar and the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi (http://www.alquds.co.uk). He is also a widely respected member of Syria’s domestic opposition.
Many see his sentencing as part of a wider crackdown against pro-reform activists and government opponents in Syria in recent months. This includes the twelve-year prison sentence with hard labour handed down on 11 May 2007 to Dr Kamal al-Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering; while on 25 April 2007 Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent human rights lawyer and another of the ten civil-society activists arrested for their support of the declaration, was sentenced to five years in prison on politically motivated charges. In fact the London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) cite the period beginning May 2006 as the lowest point for human rights in Syria since Bashar Al-Assad became President in 2000.
However, these arrests are nothing new. Syria has a history of imprisoning outspoken writers and critics of the regime. Political prisoners frequently face unfair trials or are detained for long periods without charge or trial. They are often held incommunicado, where they may be subject to torture or ill-treatment. SHRC estimated at one point that about 4,000 political prisoners were detained in Syria. It is difficult to know exact numbers because the authorities refuse to divulge information regarding numbers or names of those detained on political or security-related charges. It is virtually impossible for local human rights groups to function in Syria, which makes it hard to gather reliable information on political prisoners.
According to SHRC, all media sources in Syria are ‘owned by the ruling regime, and reflect its view exclusively, whilst celebrating its achievements and attacking and criminalising its opponents’. The authorities continue to ban various Internet websites, including those owned by the Syrian opposition and human rights organisations.
In September 2006 in these pages I wrote about Professor Aref Dalila, former Dean of the Faculty of Economics at Damascus University, arrested during the ‘Damascus Spring’ for a lecture in which he alleged official corruption and called for democracy and transparency. Like Kilo, he was charged with ‘weakening national sentiment’. In October 2004 I focused on Dr Abdul Aziz Al-Khayer, sentenced in 1992 to twenty-two years’ imprisonment for his membership of the non-violent Party for Communist Action. Al-Khayer was released in November 2005, under a presidential amnesty, but Dalila remains in prison, in very poor health, recent information suggesting that he has suffered a stroke.
Kilo has been a vocal critic of Syria, particularly during the UN inquiry into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hairiri, and has suffered persistent harassment from the Syrian authorities over the years as a result of his work in support of democratic rights.
There has been an international outcry about his recent sentencing. Human rights organisations believe his imprisonment is solely for his legitimate and peaceful pro-reform activities and therefore in violation of his internationally recognised right to freedom of expression. Amnesty International point out that in pre-trial detention Kilo was held in poor conditions, at times without adequate bedding or bed. He was reportedly prohibited from attending his mother’s funeral, although it is an established practice in Syria to allow prisoners to attend their parents’ funerals. Amnesty also believes that the fact that Kilo is detained in ’Adra prison, with suspected and convicted common criminals rather than with political prisoners, is a further attempt to de-legitimise his peaceful pro-democracy work.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Michel Kilo in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a signatory, to:
His Excellency President Bashar al-Assad
President of the Republic
Abu Rummaneh, Al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: 00 963 11 332 3410