A Syrian military court jailed on Sunday the 79-year-old lawyer Haytham Maleh (picture Reuters), who campaigned for decades for an end to the emergency law, to a sentence of three years. Haytham Maleh is considered by Amnesty International to be a prisoner of conscience detained solely for expressing his peaceful and legitimately held views.
Haytham al-Maleh was arrested on 14 October 2009, detained incommunicado for one week and then brought to trial before the Second Military Court in Damascus, although he is a civilian. He faced two charges, “conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation” and “weakening national sentiment”. These “catch-all” charges are commonly used by the Syrian authorities to prosecute and imprison peaceful critics and human rights activists.
The charges arise from an interview Haytham al-Maleh gave in September 2009 to the European-based satellite broadcaster Barada TV, in which he criticized the lack of democracy, the excessive powers wielded by security officials and official corruption in Syria and his published writings exposing human rights abuses.
Haytham al-Maleh is a long-standing human rights defender. He is the former head of the Human Rights Association of Syria, an independent human rights organization founded in 2001 but which was forced to close down at least partly as a result of harassment by the authorities.
He has been summoned and questioned on numerous occasions in recent years and he was previously imprisoned between 1980 and 1986 for protesting against government restrictions on trade union rights.
Two other prominent human rights lawyers are currently imprisoned in Syria. On 24 April 2007 Anwar al-Bunni was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on a charge of “conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation”. On 23 June this year Muhannad al-Hassani was convicted of the same charges now being brought against Haytham al-Maleh and sentenced to three years in jail.
Amnesty International has called on the President of Syria to reveal exactly what happened to 52 prisoners who went missing during and after disturbances at a military prison that also left at least 22 people dead. Families, lawyers and human rights organizations have campaigned for an independent investigation into the disturbances but the Syrian authorities have revealed few details about them or what happened afterwards.
The clashes between inmates and military police at Saydnaya Military Prison near Damascus began on 5 July 2008. Unconfirmed reports say the violence erupted after police officers shot dead nine Islamist prisoners. According to these reports, Military Police officers threw copies of the Qur’an on the floor during a routine search of the prison, and then shot dead nine Islamist prisoners who tried to pick them up. Unarmed Islamist prisoners are said then to have overpowered the police, taking several hostages together with the prison director, and to have seized their guns and mobile phones – which they used to call their families to alert them and local and international human rights organizations about what was happening.
They said they were protesting to demand that their lives be spared and that measures be taken to improve prison conditions. Communication between prisoners and the outside world then stopped. Later, families of prisoners held at Saydnaya reported seeing ambulances shuttling between the prison and Teshrin military hospital in Damascus, apparently carrying those killed and injured at the prison.
At least 17 prisoners and five Military Police officers are said to have died during the protests.
Amnesty International sent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the names of the 52 prisoners missing from Saydnaya requesting that their fate and whereabouts be clarified.