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Syria Jails Democracy Advocates

In a fresh crackdown on political dissent, Syrian courts have sentenced several pro-democracy activists to long prison terms.

Earlier this month, a Damascus court handed down the harshest sentence against an opposition activist since President Bashar Al Assad came to power in 2000. Kamal Labwani, a Syrian physician and democracy advocate, was sentenced to life in prison, commuted to twelve years, on charges of having "contacts with a foreign country aimed at encouraging it to attack Syria." Mr. Labwani was arrested in November 2005 upon returning to Damascus after holding talks with U.S. government officials responsible for promoting democracy during a tour of the United States and Europe.

In April, Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of "spreading false information harmful to the state." Mr. Bunni had been arrested along with ten other people in May 2006 for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, a petition calling for the normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow condemned the prison sentences, adding that he was "alarmed by reports that they have been subjected to inhumane prison conditions." "These developments," Mr. Snow said in a statement, "demonstrate that the Assad regime in Syria continues to suppress dissent and crack down on those who peacefully seek to defend their rights and bring democratic reform to their country."

The United States is concerned about other Syrian democracy activists who have also recently received prison sentences. Michel Kilo, Mahmoud Issa, and others were arrested in May 2006, also for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. Mr. Kilo and Mr. Issa have each been sentenced to three years in prison for "weakening national sentiment." Two other pro-democracy activists, Suleiman Shummar and Khalil Hussein, were sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison on charges of weakening national sentiment and inciting a foreign country to attack Syria.

The charges in all of these cases appear to be without foundation and none of the activists who have been jailed have received anything approximating due process of law or a fair trial. They are, in short, political prisoners, imprisoned for speaking out in defense of basic rights and freedoms.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement that the Syrian government should "live up to its obligations under the Arab Charter for Human Rights, which it ratified in February 2007, and immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience."