Kamal Labwani 88.
(photo credit: )
A Syrian dissident who was arrested after meeting with White House officials two years ago was convicted and sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison, the latest verdict in a crackdown on critics of the Syrian government.
Kamal Labwani, the 50-year-old head of a pro-democracy group, was convicted of contacting a foreign country and "encouraging attack against Syria."
The tough sentence - less than two weeks after a top human rights worker was sentenced to five years in prison - came despite US pressure on Damascus to release jailed dissidents.
Last week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Syrian counterpart in the highest-level meeting between the rival nations in two years - a gesture toward dialogue aimed at easing their numerous disputes. The talks focused on the situation in Iraq.
Labwani looked shocked for a few seconds when the judge pronounced the verdict, then gave a faint smile and raised his fist in the air, without speaking. Relatives quietly murmured "Allahu Akbar" (God is great).
"It is too much," whispered Labwani's wife, Samar.
Nadim Houri, Syria researcher with Human Rights Watch, called the sentence "extremely harsh" and urged the international community to stand up for Syrian activists.
"The crackdown is continuing and there is really no sign of it abating... Clearly, Syrian authorities have no intention of opening up any space for political reform, and I think what we're seeing today is another symbol of the peaceful opposition to the Assad regime being punished for their views," he said.
Labwani is among a string of democracy and human rights activists being prosecuted in Syria. The White House and the State Department has called on Syria to release Labwani and stop harassing those who are trying to bring democratic reforms to the Arab nation.
The verdict against him came less than two weeks after Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer who had spoken out about torture in Syrian prisons, received a five-year prison sentence on April 24 on charges of spreading false news that could weaken national morale and contacting a foreign country.
Al-Bunni 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.
Two others who signed the declaration, Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, are also on trial on charges of weakening national feeling, fomenting sectarian rifts and spreading false information. If convicted, each faces up to three years in prison.
Labwani, a physician who has been imprisoned in the past, is founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering. He was detained at Damascus airport in November 2005 after returning from a visit to the United States, where he met with White House officials.
The verdict was announced as President Bashar Assad was giving a nationally televised speech at the Syrian parliament.
When 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.