Dissident Kamal Labwani, head of the Liberal Democratic Gathering, was sentenced today to life in prison, commuted to 12 years with labor, for "inciting a foreign state to attack Syria." (Arabic. AKI, 5/10/07).
Labwani was arrested upon arrival at Damascus airport on 8 November 2005. He was returning from a trip to Europe and the USA where he met human rights organizations and government officials and called for democratic reform in Syria, including in an interview on al-Hurra.
Labwani, a physician, did not speak when the judge handed down the sentence, and only raised his fist in the air upon imposing sentencing. (AP. 5/10/07). "It is too much," whispered Labwani's wife, Samar, adding that the sentence was a political one.
This is the second time Labwani has been sentenced to jail. He was first sentenced to three years when the regime cracked down on the so-called "Damascus Spring" movement in 2001.
His sentencing follows another in recent days against Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer, who received a five-year prison sentence, signaling a continuing of a crackdown by authorities against dissent. (AI, 4/27/07). Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, signatories of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, will receive their sentence on Sunday.
Amnesty International had called for the release of Labwani, Kilo, Bunni and Issa in a recent statement. And the Syrian Human Rights Monitor commented on the sentence in a statement: "We consider the verdict to be political par excellence, especially since it was handed down while President Assad was addressing the new parliament, which reflects the worrisome direction that the Syrian authorities are pursuing against those who oppose them." (Arabic. Elaph, 5/10/07). Human Rights Watch also noted that "[f]rom the onset, Labwani’s trial was marred by the interference of the state security agencies." (HRW, 5/11/07).
Nadim Houri, a Syria researcher with Human Rights Watch, commented on the verdict saying, "The crackdown is continuing and there is really no sign of it abating. ... Clearly, Syrian authorities have no intention of opening up any space for political reform, and I think what we're seeing today is another symbol of the peaceful opposition to the Assad regime being punished for their views." He also urged the international community to stand up for Syrian activists. (AP. 5/10/07).
Another dissident, former MP Ma'moun Homsi, who has left Syria, had his assets seized by the regime, with the purpose of pressuring him and his family. Homsi had revealed in a recent interview on the liberal Arabic website Aafaq, that he had sent a letter to Sen. Nancy Pelosi asking her not to come to Damascus. (Arabic. Aafaq, 4/30/07).
Some dissidents in Syria are said to have linked the harsh sentence against Bunni to the recent Congressional visits to Damascus, which emboldened the regime to crack down even more.
“Syrian officials repeatedly claim that their country wants to play a constructive role in the region,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. “But this is hard to believe as they continue to imprison peaceful dissidents at home.”