Syrian journalist held incommunicado‎, another on trial

New York, April 22, 2009–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Syrian authorities to disclose the whereabouts of a journalist who has been held incommunicado since early April after he was ordered to visit the political security ‎‎office in Aleppo.

Faruq Haji Mustafa, a Syrian Kurdish journalist and writer, was arrested on April 5 by political security officers, according to the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKeyes), a Lebanon-based regional press freedom watchdog, and regional news reports.

Before his arrest, Mustafa told SKeyes that he had met with a German journalist and directly following that he had received multiple summonses to go to the political security office. Mustafa has not been heard of since his arrest, a colleague, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, told CPJ.

“We call on the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of Faruq Haji Mustafa and to explain why he is being held,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “His detention and the secrecy surrounding it violate his basic right to access to legal council. If he is not charged, he must be released.”

Mustafa has written for regional media outlets such as the Syrian Al-Watan, the London-based pan-Arab Al-Hayat, and the Lebanon-based Al-Safir.

In an unrelated case, Waed al-Mhana, a journalist and advocate for endangered archaeological sites, is on trial for charges related to an article posted on Kuluna Shuraka (We are all partners), a Syrian Web site, on November 29, 2006. In the article, al-Mhana criticized a decision of the Ministry of Culture to destroy an old market, al-Suk Al-Atiq, in the historic district of Old Damascus. The market was demolished later that year.

Culture Minister Riadh Na`san al-Agha filed a lawsuit against al-Mhana in April 2007 on charges of violating the country’s press code because the article contained “inappropriate phrases that include abasement,” according to a transcript of the lawsuit obtained by CPJ.

The Court of First Instance in Damascus found al-Mhana guilty on July 20, 2008, and sentenced him in absentia to two months imprisonment and two fines of 100,000 Syria pounds ($2,160) for violating the press code and 500,000 Syria pounds ($10,830) in damages for the plaintiff. Al-Mhana, who lives in Damascus, was not notified about the trial and learned about the court ruling early this year, he told CPJ. Al-Mhana said he objected to the ruling in February and that the same court granted him a chance to present his defense and review the case on April 29.

“We are troubled by the ruling against Waed al-Mhana and call on the court to reverse it in the next court hearing,” said Abdel Dayem.