Two journalists detained after writing about divisions

New York, May 16, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the detention of two journalists who have written about divisions within Syria. Military intelligence service detained prominent activist and writer Michel Kilo on May 14 in Damascus, according to CPJ sources. Online journalist Muhammad Ghanem has been in detention for 47 days.

Kilo, who contributes to the leading Lebanese daily Al-Nahar and the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi among other publications, was summoned for questioning by security services at noon on Sunday, and has been held since then. He appeared before a Damascus court today but the hearing was postponed for a day, according to CPJ sources.

No charges against him have been made public. CPJ sources said his arrest might be related to an article he wrote the day before his arrest for Al-Quds Al-Arabi titled “Syrian Eulogies.” Kilo wrote about a split in Syrian society, and the popular ridiculing of the government’s slogans of national unity. Discussing issues challenging national unity in is taboo in Syria, which has been ruled by members of the tiny Alawite sect since 1971.

Kilo also joined nearly 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals and artists in signing a petition released Friday, which condemned the assassination of political dissidents, and called upon Damascus to respect the sovereignty of neighboring Lebanon, over which it still has great influence.

In a separate case, online journalist Ghanem, editor of the news Web site Surion, has been detained for the past 47 days, Surion and human rights organizations reported. He appeared before a military court Monday in the northern town of al-Raqqah on charges of publishing false news about divisions within the Syrian society, and human rights violations, according to several human rights organizations. Ghanem has written many articles advocating political and cultural rights for Syria’s Kurdish minority. According to Legislative Decree No. 6 of 1965, Ghanem faces between three and 15 years in prison if convicted, the sources said.

Ghanem was arrested at his home in al-Raqqah by military intelligence on March 31. He was transferred to Damascus and detained in the “Palestine Branch” of the Military Intelligence Security (Branch 235), one of many branches in Syria’s vast security apparatus. He was transferred this week to al-Raqqah al-Markazi prison. Ghanem has not been allowed to see his lawyer or his family since his arrest. Ghanem was previously arrested and detained for 15 days by military intelligence in March 2004.

“We call for the immediate release of Michel Kilo and Muhammad Ghanem,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “Their arrest and detention shows Syria’s complete disregard for freedom of expression and its iron fisted resolve to crush dissident voices.”

Syrian authorities have cracked down on political and human rights activists this year. Over the last three months, Human Rights Watch documented the arrest of 26 activists.