WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (IPS) - With media and diplomatic attention focused on the international incident ignited by a U.S. cross-border raid from Iraq into Syrian territory last weekend, the Syrian government quietly handed down 30-month prison terms to a group of democracy activists on Wednesday.
Few took notice, although Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to immediately overturn the convictions and order the release of prisoners arrested during a crackdown on the Damascus Declaration movement in late 2007 and early 2008.
Forty activists who participated in a Damascus Declaration forum had been detained, although most were later released. In a 20-minute sentencing session, the 12 who were prosecuted and convicted were given stiff prison terms for allegedly attempting to promote gradual political change in the country.
“In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. “The trial was a mere cover to legitimise the government’s repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics.”
But the best cover for the Syrian regime may have come from the U.S., Syria expert and Oklahoma University professor Joshua Landis told IPS.
“The world is not concentrating on this; the world is concentrating on America’s violation of Syrian territory,” Landis told IPS, noting that even some of the U.S.’s allies have condemned the raid.
“America would normally be putting out a statement,” he said, “but no one cares about these guys because the world is focused on [the recent raid]. Everyone is focused on this international issue that America created.”
“These 12 democracy promoters are going to disappear into jail because there is chaos at the border. It punctuates the failure of the Freedom Agenda,” Landis added.
The activists were part of a coalition based around the Damascus Declaration, which formed the basis for a reform movement encouraging “internal support for peaceful, democratic change in Syria,” according to the HRW statement.
The Damascus Declaration, which was established in 2005, created a coalition comprised of opposition political parties and independent activists, including lawyers, doctors, writers and an artist.
The consolidation of Syria’s wildly varied opposition, represented by the Damascus Declaration, came at a time of relative weakness for the regime. Syria was part of U.S. President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” and a neighbouring Axis member, Iraq, had just been subject to a U.S. invasion aimed at regime change.
That weakness and, says Landis, emboldened by encouraging press from the world’s democracy movements, led the opposition to seek to organise and unify — aims largely accomplished by the Damascus Declaration, albeit ephemerally.
Despite a long record of prosecuting political activists who peacefully express their opinions, the Assad regime did not initially act forcefully against the Damascus Declaration.
But in 2006, when the members of the coalition banded together with Lebanese intellectuals and activists to call for better relations between the countries, Syrian authorities cracked down.
In May of 2007, a Syrian court handed down sentences to four activists, including prominent writer Michel Kilo and political activist Mahmud Issa, for allegedly “weakening national sentiment”.
The regime in Syria, like Iraq under former president Saddam Hussein, is ruled by the Arab Socialist Resurrection Baath Party. Bashar al-Assad, who took the helm after his father’s death in 2000, was confirmed as president by an unopposed referendum in 2001. His late father had ruled Syria for 30 years prior to his death.
Syria’s government under the Assads has a history of abuses and heavily limits basic freedoms such as expression, association and assembly through different laws including 45 years of an ongoing state of emergency.
Removing the state of emergency is a major part of the Damascus Declaration’s platform. The prisoners in the latest round of crackdowns include movement president Fida al-Hurani, former parliament member Riyadh Seif, and author Ali al-Abdullah.
Syrian security forces initially held the activists incommunicado for as long as 40 days. Eight of the 12 convicted told the investigative judge that State Security officials beat them during their interrogation and forced them to sign false statements “confessing” that they planned to take money from foreign countries in order to divide the country.
Al-Abdullah suffered an injury to his ear as a result of the beating he endured, said the HRW statement, and the court did not order any independent investigation regarding the allegations of ill-treatment.
They were charged with “spreading false information” and “belonging to a secret organisation promoting sectarian strife,” charges that they deny, according to Freedom House, a U.S. government-funded human rights watchdog.
During the trial, the activists confessed that they were involved in the Damascus Declaration, but pleaded not guilty and denied the charges against them.
Another detainee, Walid al-Bunni, a physician, told the court during his defence that “getting into the details of my defence is useless, but I will ask: what is the basis of the accusations?”
One of the lawyers for the activists told HRW that the defence team will likely appeal the sentence within the required 30 days. He summarised the judgment by saying “membership in the Damascus Declaration is now criminalised.”
Families of the detainees expressed their grief over the sentence. “We don’t know what to feel anymore. I don’t care if the sentence is for 2.5 years or 10 years. My husband should not be in jail in the first place,” said the wife of one of the detainees, according to HRW.
The crackdown on the Damascus Declaration after the initial inaction in 2005, said Landis, was a result of Assad’s newfound ability to rally people against activists.
In 2005, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had not yet descended into widespread violence and chaos. As disorder in Iraq increased with the bungled occupation, says Landis, dictatorships suddenly had an example of what collusion with Western interests would look like — especially when Western involvement was couched in terms of democracy promotion, known as Bush’s Freedom Agenda.
“Every Middle Eastern society is so fearful of the chaos and insecurity that could be visited upon them with the collapse of their government that they cling to their dictatorial regimes,” Landis told IPS. “It’s relegitimised dictatorship.”