It has been difficult to read the news out of Syria this week....
Prominent writer Michael Kilo and Mahmoud Issa were each sentenced to three years in prison on charges of "weakening national sentiment" in part due to their signing of the 2006 declaration calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations.
Sulaiman Shummar and Khalil Hussain were sentenced the same day, in absentia, to five years in prison for "weakening national sentiment" and "undertaking acts and writings unauthorized by the Syrian government that may expose Syria to aggressive acts or spoil its relations with another state." Shummar, member of the political bureau of the unauthorized Worker's Revolutionary Party and a leader of the National Democratic Gathering, and Hussain, member of the Kurdish Future Movement, are in hiding or have fled the country and it remained unclear as to whether the five years for each charge were consecutive or concurrent sentences.
These most recent prison sentences follow the sentencing on May 11 of human rights activists Dr. Kamal al-Labwani and Anwar al-Bunni. Dr. al-Labwani, a physician and founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, was sentenced to life in prison (ultimately reduced to 12 years) with hard labor for "communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria" due to his travels to Europe and the US in 2005. Al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer, was sentenced to five years in prison for "spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation." The "exaggerated news" referred to a statement by al-Bunni claiming that a man had died in a Syrian jail because of the inhumane conditions.
According to the Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic:
"Freedom is a sacred right. The state protects the personal freedom of the citizens and safeguards their dignity and security." (Article 25, line 1)
"Every citizen has the right to freely and openly express his views in words, in writing, and through all other means of expression." (Article 38)
I hope these sentences are overturned. I also hope the US State Department will use the informal talks between Rice and Mouallem at Sharm al-Sheikh as a jumping-off point for more substantive talks. The silent treatment serves neither side well.
Also, President Bashar Al-Assad has been nominated by the newly-elected Syrian parliament as the only presidential candidate for the nationwide referendum to be held on May 27. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), exams for students, scheduled for the same day, have been postponed to enable the students to, according to the National Union for Syrian Students "show their support.
According to SANA, the Union's statement also said that the "referendum embodies national aspirations and dignity". In my opinion, the men imprisoned this week embody those same things. Read their words and decide for yourself.
Despite its troubles, I love Syria and the many people I met during the months I lived there. Not one person there ever had a problem distinguishing me from my government and I don't have a problem doing the same for them. I hope to return to see my friends soon and pick up where I left off.