Online journalist to serve six months in prison

New York, June 7, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned by the prison sentence handed down to a Syrian online journalist by a military court for articles advocating rights for Syria’s Kurdish minority, and criticizing the ruling Baath Party.

Muhammad Ghanem, editor of the news Web site Surion, was found guilty Tuesday of insulting the president, undermining the state’s dignity, and inciting sectarian divisions, according to an e-mail sent by Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, to The Associated Press. Ghanem was sentenced to one year in jail but the judge commuted his sentence to six months, Surion said, without offering further explanation.

Ghanem has been detained since March 31, Surion and human rights organizations reported. Ghanem has written many articles advocating political and cultural rights for Syria’s Kurdish minority and has been critical of the Baath Party’s handling of domestic issues.

Ghanem was arrested at his home in the northern town of al-Raqqah by military intelligence, 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 taken in May to al-Raqqah al-Markazi prison.

Ghanem was previously arrested and detained for 15 days by military intelligence in March 2004.

“We are outraged at this miscarriage of justice, and call for the immediate release of our colleague Muhammad Ghanem,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “This latest effort to crush freedom of expression reinforces Syria’s image as one of the most repressive countries in the world.”

On World Press Freedom Day last month, CPJ named Syria among the 10 most censored nations worldwide. See CPJ’s report.

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.