Syrian democracy advocate Kamal Labwani jailed for 12 years

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Syrian medical doctor Kamal Labwani was sentenced in a Syrian court Thursday to 12 years of hard labour, one of the longest sentences for a dissident meted out by a Syrian court during Bashar al-Assad's presidency.

Labwani is a prominent activist with a history of advocating democratic reform in Syria. Labwani founded the Democratic Liberal Gathering, which Human Rights Watch describes as "a group of Syrian intellectuals and activists who advocate for peaceful change in Syria based on democratic reforms, liberalism, secularism and respect for human rights."

"The Syrian government has accelerated its crackdown on free speech and peaceful activism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Peaceful activists like Labwani are paying a heavy price for expressing their views."

Labwani was convicted of inciting a foreign country to attack Syria. The charges may have stemmed from meetings Labwani held in late 2005 with American officials while on a visit to the United States. He was arrested at Damascus Airport on his return to Syria in November 2005.

The White House issued a statement on Friday condemning the sentence, and suggested that Labwani may have been treated harshly under inhumane prison conditions. "These developments demonstrate that the Asad 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," said Tony Snow, White House Press Secretary. "As the President stated last year, all political prisoners in Syria should be released immediately."

The sentencing of Labwani comes just two weeks after Anwar al-Bunni, another Syrian democracy activist was jailed five years for signing a petition, the "Damascus Declaration", which encouraged significant changes to Syria's involvement with Lebanon.

Labwani's defense lawyer, Khalil Maatouk, rejected the charges against his client and indicated he would appeal the judgment within 30 days. "This is a political trial," said Maatouk. He suggested that Labwani "believed in peaceful change from within Syria."