Authorities raided the offices of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus and arrested several journalists and press freedom activists. Among those still being held in late 2014 were the center’s president, Darwish, the prominent blogger Ghrer, and al-Zitani, another journalist for the center. Mansour al-Omari and Abd al-Rahman Hamada, two other journalists arrested the same day, were released in early 2013 pending trial, the center reported. It is unclear why the others continue to be held.
The center said the five journalists were indicted on February 27, 2013, on charges of publicizing acts of terror under Article 8 of the newly enacted counterterrorism law. The accused face up to 15 years each if convicted, human rights groups said. The trial was ongoing in late 2014.
On June 9, 2014, the government announced a general amnesty, which applied to the charges faced by the imprisoned members of the media center, according to a statement signed by the center, CPJ, and 77 other organizations. The journalists were not released.
The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression was instrumental in documenting the deaths and detentions of journalists after the popular uprising began in March 2011. The group also disseminated reports about the government’s suppression of news and commentary, providing important context as the regime sought to impose an international media blackout.
Human rights groups have said the men were tortured in custody by Air Force intelligence agents. In 2013, officials moved them to Adra prison on the outskirts of Damascus and allowed their families to visit, news reports said.
Ghrer had been arrested previously, in October 2011, on charges of “weakening national sentiments,” “forming an association without a permit,” and “inciting demonstrations.” He was released on bail on December 1, 2011, according to Razan Ghazzawi, the U.S.-born blogger who was also arrested in the February 2012 raid on the center. Ghrer’s blog featured stories about other detained bloggers in Syria, the country’s popular uprising, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories, among other topics. Ghrer suffers from coronary disease and high blood pressure, requiring daily medication.
Since his detention, Darwish was has been honored with two international human rights awards in absentia: In 2012, he was awarded the Press Freedom Prize from Reporters Without Borders, and in June 2013 he was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights.