Syria detains journalist beyond sentence

New York, June 21, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on Syrian authorities to release a journalist who is being held despite having completed a 30-month prison sentence in Damascus.

Ali al-Abdallah, a freelance journalist who has regularly written for numerous prominent Arabic-language newspapers outside Syria, was supposed to be released on June 17 but a military court informed him that he will be given new charges and must remain in jail.

“It is outrageous that Ali al-Abdallah should be held beyond his court-imposed sentence,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “We call on the authorities to stop fabricating charges against him and release him immediately.”

Al-Abdallah was arrested in December 2007 after he was elected to the secretariat of the Damascus Declaration, a reform movement calling for peaceful and democratic changes in Syria. He was charged with “disseminating false information with the aim of harming the state and weakening national feelings,” “membership in a secret organization designed to destabilize the political and economic structure of the state,” and with “inciting ethnic and racial tension.” Al-Abdallah was sentenced in October 2008 to 30 months in prison. The authorities included the eight months he served before the trial.

On the day of his expected release, al-Abdallah was taken from prison to the Department of Political Security, where a military prosecutor informed him that he will be charged again, his son Mohammad al-Abdallah, told CPJ. Al-Abdallah will be charged under Article 286 of the Penal Code with “disseminating false information with the aim of harming the state and weakening national feelings,” and under Article 278 with “taking actions, producing writings or speeches not sanctioned by the government that would expose Syria to the danger of hostility, or harm its relationship with a foreign country, or expose Syrians to retaliation against them or their property.” The prosecutor questioned al-Abdallah and decided to detain him indefinitely in Adraa Prison, Damascus’ central jail, according to his son.

The current charges are based on an article al-Abdallah wrote and had smuggled out of prison in August 2009, in which he criticized Wilayat al-Faqih (the Guardianship of Scholars), the religious form of government advocated by Iranian Shiite leaders. In the article, al-Abdallah criticized Tehran and stated that the Guardianship of Scholars is a fringe philosophy that has been utilized by Tehran because it is politically expedient.

Iran is among Syria’s foremost allies in the region, and the government has been exceptionally sensitive to critical writing on Syrian-Iranian relations, CPJ research shows. Syria’s Emergency Law, in place since 1963, suspends many political and civil rights and grants the government sweeping powers that allow it to detain individuals for extended periods of time and to try them in military courts.