HRW criticizes Syrian gov't for stifling freedom of expression

Calls on country to release writers and activists detained for expressing their opinions or reporting information online.

October 8, 2007 16:36
2 minute read.
HRW criticizes Syrian gov't for stifling freedom of expression

jail prison cell 88. (photo credit: )

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government Monday to release writers and activists it has detained for expressing their opinions or reporting information online. The rights group said Syrian authorities have held two men, Karim Arbaji and Tarek Biasi, since June for criticizing the government online and the country's judiciary sentenced a third man, Ali Zein al-Abideen Mej, to two years in prison in September for posting comments deemed harmful to the nation. "The fact that Syria arrests people solely because they criticize the state speaks volumes about the government's utter disregard for the most basic human rights," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Even worse, Syrian intelligence has the nasty habit of not telling families where their loved ones are being detained in effect, disappearing them for periods of time." Authorities have refused to disclose the whereabouts of Arbaji or Biasi to their families, the organization said in a written statement. Military intelligence detained Arbaji on June 7 allegedly for moderating a popular online forum for Syrian youth covering social and political issues, according to Human Rights Watch. Authorities arrested Biasi on June 30 for insulting the country's security services, the rights group quoted a person familiar with the case as saying. On Sept. 23, the Supreme State Security Court sentenced al-Abideen Mej to two years in prison for "undertaking acts or writing or speeches unauthorized by the government ... that spoil its ties with a foreign state" because he posted comments online attacking Saudi Arabia, the group added. When Syrian President Bashar Assad first came to power in 2000, he allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings in a period that came to be known as the "Damascus Spring," leading many to hope for even greater freedom of expression. But in 2001, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists and other critics of the government, sending the regime's secret police to raid their meetings and jailing two lawmakers and other activists. Syrian authorities recently took steps to restrict the use of anonymous comments that many Syrian writers rely on to escape state surveillance, according to Human Rights Watch. On July 25, 2007, the Syrian minister of communications and technology, Amr Salem, issued a decree requiring all Web site owners to display the name and e-mail of the writer of any article or comment appearing on their site. The Syrian government also blocks access to a broad range of Web sites that criticize government policies or support Syrian opposition groups.

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