In the space of three weeks, the Syrian judiciary has recently handed down heavy prison sentences to six prominent human rights activists for purely political reasons. Five of them : the lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, writer and journalist Michel Kilo, Mahmoud Issa, a member of the Syrian communist party, Suleyman Shummar, a Kurdish militant, and Khalil Hussein, a leading member of an illegal opposition party, were arrested in May 2006 for signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. This text, motivated by the desire to establish lasting peace in the region, called for a normalisation of Lebanese-Syrian relations on the basis of mutual respect for national sovereignty. Hundreds of prominent Syrians and Lebanese signed the declaration.
On 24 April, Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights activist of staggering courage, was sentenced to five years imprisonment for "disseminating false information likely to undermine the morale of the nation". Al-Bunni played an important role as a linkup with several international human rights organisations. When he appeared before the criminal court in Damascus last November, he impressed the courtroom with his remarkably strong words, in particular against torture. Mocking the charge of undermining the morale of the nation, he stated with reference to his denunciation in the press of the death in Sidnaya prison of the prisoner Mohammed Shaher Haissa as a result of torture : "...What really undermines the morale of the nation, weakens it and even threatens its very existence are those who practice torture in prisons and detention centres, those who detain political opponents and sentence them to death only for their political affiliation ..."
On 13 May 2007, Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa were both sentenced to three years imprisonment. The same day, Khalil Hussein and Suleyman Shummar, who have been in hiding since their release on bail in September 2006, were sentenced in absentia to five years imprisonment.
The militant pacifist Kamal al-Labwani, a doctor and founder of the Liberal Democratic Union, a group of Syrian intellectuals peacefully campaigning for democracy and human rights, was sentenced on 10 May to 12 years imprisonment with hard labour for "communicating with a foreign country with the aim of causing it to attack Syria". Dr al-Labwani was arrested in November 2005 upon his return from a trip to Europe and the United States, where he had visited human rights organisations and government representatives. Kamal al-Labwani has already spent three years in prison for participating in the "Damascus Spring" together with other pro-democratic reform intellectuals in Syria.
The Presidency of the European Union and the US Department of State have taken a stand against these iniquitous sentences and called upon Syria to unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience. We now hope that our governments will ensure that they include these demands for human rights in their negotiations with Syria.