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Human Rights Activist Sentenced to Five Years

by Sam F. Ghattas Friday, Apr. 27, 2007 at 10:55 AM

Syrian Activist Sentenced to 5 Years

By SAM F. GHATTAS, Associated Press Writer

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

(04-24) 12:45 PDT DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) --

One of Syria's most vocal human rights activists was sentenced to five years in prison Tuesday, in a clear warning that the government will not tolerate dissent.

Anwar al-Bunni, who was among several dissidents held for the past year following Syria's biggest crackdown on critics of the regime in years, defiantly told the court he would not be silenced.

"This verdict is a political verdict," al-Bunni, a lawyer, told the court after a judge read out the verdict, according to his brother, Akram al-Bunni.

The United States, European Union and Amnesty International swiftly denounced the sentence.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said al-Banni's "arrest, detention and harsh sentence are yet another example of the Syrian regime's ... blatant attempts to silence and intimidate the Syrian people."

In April 2006, al-Bunni reported on a suspected Islamic fundamentalist who died in prison, allegedly from torture, and spoke out in support of Kurdish dissidents amid a government crackdown against them.

A founding member of the Syrian Human Rights Association, he was also among 500 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who signed the so-called "Damascus Declaration" that called on the Syrian government to improve ties with neighboring Lebanon, a sensitive issue in Syria. In May last year, a week after signing the declaration, he and at least eight other activists were arrested.

During earlier hearings, al-Bunni told the court he was "proud" of the charges stemming from his work as a rights activist, according to the Syrian Organization for Human Rights.

Tuesday's ruling convicted al-Bunni of spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale, affiliating with an unlicensed political association of an international nature, discrediting state institutions and contacting a foreign country, according to defense lawyer Khalil Maatouk.

Maatouk said the trial was politically motivated and a "flagrant violation of freedom of opinion and expression, and an attempt to intimidate Syrian society." He told The Associated Press that he would appeal the ruling within 30 days, hoping the Appeal Court judges would be independent and consider the matter impartially.

But Akram al-Bunni said his brother was given the maximum penalty as a "message" to others, and doubted the verdict would be overturned on appeal. Along with Al-Bunni's brother, the Canadian ambassador and diplomats from the Netherlands, France and Germany attended the Tuesday's hearing.

There was no immediate comment on the verdict from Syrian authorities, who do not comment on cases deemed political or matters of national security. But Assad has in the past criticized international calls for the release of regime opponents and suggested that they did not help their case.

When President Bashar Assad succeeded his father in July 2000, he released hundreds of political prisoners detained during Hafez Assad's 30 year rule. But he soon clamped down on pro-democracy activists, indicating there were limits to the amount of opposition he was prepared to tolerate.


Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.
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