State control of the media and the ongoing state of emergency continues to be used as an excuse to arrest many media workers. Eight journalists and cyber-dissidents were imprisoned in 2006.
Arbitrary behaviour remains the norm in Syria. Journalists and political activists risk arrest at any time for any reason and are up against a whimsical and vengeful state apparatus which continually adds to the list of things banned or forbidden to be mentioned. Several journalists were arrested in 2006 for interviewing exiled regime opponents, taking part in conferences abroad and for criticising government policies. They were subjected to lengthy legal proceedings before the Damascus military court that, under a 1963 law, tries anyone considered to have undermined state security.
Freelance journalist Ali Abdallah, who wrote for the Emirates daily Al-Khalij and Lebanese dailies An-Nahar and Assafir, was given a six-month prison sentence for criticising in print the weakness of the country’s economy. He was arrested on 23 March but not tried until five months later. The case was then passed to the state security high court and then to a Damascus court, which adjourned the case several times.
His son, Mohammed Abdallah, was also given the same sentence for contacting the pan-Arab satellite TV network Al-Jazeera to report his father’s arrest. The two men were held in secret for a month and family and lawyers were not allowed to see them. They were also tortured during interrogation to get them to confess.
Michel Kilo, a leading pro-democracy figure for more than 30 years, was arrested on 14 May after signing the “Beirut-Damascus Damascus-Beirut” declaration by a group of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals calling for better relations between the two countries. Several human rights activists were also arrested in May, including lawyer Anwar Bunni.
Kilo, who writes for several Lebanese publications, was charged with inciting “religious and racial divisions” and “insulting institutions and officials” and faces life imprisonment. His case is a good example of the manoeuvrings of the justice system, which is wholly part of the ruling Baath Party’s repressive apparatus. An order by one judge to release him on bail was countered by another who charged him with new offences and at the end of the year he was still in Adra prison, near Damascus, awaiting trial.
Three people are in jail for criticising the regime, making Syria the biggest prison for cyber-dissidents in the Middle East. The three have been routinely mistreated and held in tough conditions. The government blocks access to Arab-language opposition websites and those dealing with the country’s Kurdish minority.