Two journalists facing military court trial in Syria

New York, July 9, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Syrian authorities to drop criminal defamation charges against investigative journalists Bassam Ali and Suhaila Ismail. 

The journalists co-wrote two investigative reports in 2005 and 2006 on corruption and the misuse of public funds in the Public Company for Fertilizers in Syria. They concluded that almost 2 billion Syrian pounds (US$43 million) were misappropriated in one year. The minister of industry fired the director of the fertilizer company, Abd As-Samed al-Yaffi, a year after their report was published, according to local news reports. The minister also issued an order to freeze the properties and funds of the director and his wife. 

Al-Yaffi then filed a lawsuit against the journalists. He accused them of defamation, and “resisting the socialist system”—saying in his suit that the articles aimed to dismantle the public system through “accusations without proof.”

On Wednesday, the court of appeals in Homs, 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Damascus in western Syria, transferred the case to a military court based on Syria’s Emergency Law. The 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 and to try them in military courts.

“Bassam Ali and Suhaila Ismail should not be facing defamation charges at all, let alone in a military court,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “We call on the authorities to drop all charges against them, considering that the government ministry itself saw fit to dismiss the head of the company as a result of these articles.”

Ali and Ismail told All4Syria, a local news Web site, that the “judicial proceedings were taking place against us without our knowledge for many months without any official notification.”

The two are charged under article 15, paragraph 1 of the Syrian Law on Economic Sanctions (1966) which state:” a person will be punished by imprisonment from one year to three years by any act of resistance to the socialist system.” Local news reports, however, point out that the Syrian government decided in 2006 to adopt a social market economy system, instead of a socialist system, during the National Convention of Baath Party.