On April 24 2007 Anwar al-Bunni, human rights activist and friend and colleague of my friend, Kamal al-Labwani, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale”. He had been detained since May 2006 in harsh conditions and abused by his guards. On 20 May, Kamal suffered a similar fate: sentenced to twelve years, later extended by a further three.
On 1 May 2008, Anwar al-Bunni was selected to receive an award from the Irish organisation Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. In June 2008 Martin Sheen and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD joined Front Line to celebrate his courage.
Just recently, in December 2009, Anwar’s courage and commitment to human rights was recognised again.
In December 2009 the German Association of Judges awarded Anwar al-Bunni its prestigious human rights prize, recognition that is intended to strengthen and further respect for universal human rights and basic freedoms.
Those of us privileged enough to live in liberal democracies, where free speech is taken for granted, should keep good people like Anwar al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani, Mohannad al-Hussani, Haitham al-Maneh and Ma’an Aqil at the forefront of our thinking. We should not forget the sacrifice they and their families are making in order that, one day, they might enjoy those same freedoms. In that struggle, the Syrian government might remember that it is a signatory to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ask itself how detention of these peaceful dissenters conforms with the commitments it has made as a member of the international community.
Whether in the UK, the US, Germany, or elsewhere in the EU, each of us should continue to hound our leaders to keep the Syrian regime under as much pressure as possible. It is only the spotlight remaining on the likes of Anwar, Kamal, Mohannad, Haitham and Ma’an that will ensure that Syria eventually faces up to its responsibilities – and its failure to adhere to the standards of conduct to be expected of a country that wants to be taken seriously on the international stage.