Iyas Maleh and Kamal Labwani’s friends urge support for Syrian Independence Day demo, April 17th #syria #labwani

As Syria prepares to celebrate 64 years of independence, the European Union continues to work towards cementing relations with Syria through its EU-Syria Mediterranean Association Agreement. Maureen Thomas, however, has alerted me to a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy to remind the world that despite its reformist rhetoric, peaceful and democratic reformers such as Kamal Labwani, Anwar Bunni, Haithem Maleh and Muhannad Hassani are still locked up on trumped-up charges in defiance of Syria’s commitments on civil and political rights.

In an email to Maureen, Iyas al-Maleh, son of imprisoned human rights champion Haitham al-Maleh, thanked her for mobilising support for the demonstration, to be held at 3pm on Saturday 17 April, 8 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PH. Similar demonstrations are already planned for Brussels and Washington, with work ongoing to organise similar protests in Berlin, Geneva and Paris.

If you are a friend and supporter of Kamal, and his fellow prisoners, please see if you are free and visit the sign-up page to register:


News of the proposed demonstration comes at the same time as the UNHCR reports that the Syrian regime continues to harass its political internees. It makes for upsetting reading and you are left wondering at the strength of men who still find the courage to defy the authorities even in Adra prison, preferring to surrender their visiting rights instead of succumbing to the indignity of being forced to meet family in prison garb.

So please see if you are free on 17 April and make a standard for freedom of conscience and human rights.

And our friends.

Kamal in prison uniform

Kamal, in prison uniform

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Urgent: Amnesty appeal as Haitham al-Maleh’s health fails #syria #amnesty #almaleh #labwani

haytham al-malehVery worrying news from Amnesty International regarding the health of Hytham al-Maleh.

Haitham al-Maleh was born in Damascus, in 1931 holds a degree in Law from Damascus University and a diploma in public international law. He is an award-winning human rights activist and lawyer. On 7 December 2004 he received an award from the National Advisory Committee (French) for Human Rights for his research on torture. He received his award from the French ambassador in Damascus in a special ceremony because the authorities prevented him from travelling to Paris. On 11 March 2006 he was awarded a Dutch medal in recognition of his courageous struggle for human rights.

The text of Amnesty’s recent press release is reproduced below.

Please write as requested by Amnesty.


Haitham al-Maleh’s health failing

Prisoner of conscience Haitham al-Maleh is very ill, and he has not taken any of the medication he needs since 11 February.

Since 11 February, the authorities have not allowed detainees in ‘Adra prison to obtain medication from anywhere but the prison pharmacy. Haitham al-Maleh will only take medication provided by his family, because he believes the prison pharmacy’s medicine is of poor quality.

He was brought before a military judge in Damascus on 22 February to face new charges of “insulting the president” and “slandering a governmental body”, in a public hearing. These charges were based on information from a prisoner detained for a non-political offence. Haitham al-Maleh said the information consisted of “lies and acts of provocation” by the prisoner.

Diplomats and two Italian lawyers representing the International Federation for Human Rights, an international non-governmental organization that aims at improving human rights protection, who had come to observe the trial session, were not allowed to attend. Haitham al-Maleh’s wife, who was present in court, was not allowed to shake his hand or talk to him. On his way out, security officers dragged him away from her when they embraced.

According to those who did attend the hearing, Haitham al-Maleh was so frail that his voice was weak. He had passed out during the week before the hearing, because he had not received his medication. The day after the hearing, the new charges were dropped under a presidential amnesty for prisoners convicted of minor offences, but the charges brought against him on 3 November still stand.

Conditions in ‘Adra prison are poor. Haytham al-Maleh sleeps on a mattress on the floor in an overcrowded cell. He has diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland and has not had any medication since 11 February, although he needs to take regular medication to treat both conditions. His health is deteriorating. Individuals suffering from diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland who do not take medication are at risk of severe weight loss, falling into a coma, and even heart and kidney failure. Unlike other detainees in ‘Adra prison, Haytham al-Maleh is usually accompanied by a prison officer when meeting with the prison doctor.

PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in Arabic, English, French or your own language:

Urging the authorities to release Haytham al-Maleh immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.


Bashar al-Assad
Presidential Palace
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 3410
Salutation: Your Excellency

Minister of Interior

His Excellency Major Sa’id Mohamed Samour
Ministry of Interior
‘Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 222 3428
Salutation: Your Excellency

Copies to: Minister of Foreign Affairs

His Excellency Walid al-Mu’allim
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Abu Rummaneh
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 7620
Salutation: Your Excellency

Additional Information

Haitham al-Maleh was charged by a military judge on 3 November with “conveying false news”, “weakening national sentiment” and “slandering a governmental body”. These charges relate to his public criticism of human rights violations and corruption by Syrian officials, which included a phone interview in September with a Europe-based satellite channel, Baradda TV.

Kamal al-Labwani

Prison authorities often encourage prisoners charged with or convicted of non-political offences to inform on political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. On 23 April, Kamal al-Labwani, a prisoner of conscience was given an additional term of three years in prison by the First Criminal Military Court in Damascus for “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country” under article 286 of the Penal Code. This sentence was added to the 12-year term he was already serving on account of his work advocating peaceful reform in the country. This new sentence was based on the testimony of a prisoner in his cell in ‘Adra prison that Kamal al-Labwani had returned from one of the hearings of his previous trial and spoken disparagingly of the government. Kamal al-Labwani denied the charge and said prisoners detained for non-political offences were working in conjunction with the prison authorities, who had ignored his complaints that he had been assaulted twice in the prison.

Walid al-Bunni

Another prisoner of conscience, Walid al-Bunni, is serving a 30-month sentence for his involvement in the Damascus  Declaration for Democratic National Change, a coalition of unauthorized political parties, human rights organizations and pro-democracy activists from across the political spectrum. He was brought before Damascus Criminal Court on a new charge of “conveying false news” on 4 May 2009, based on the testimony of another prisoner. The new charge was finally dropped on 17 June 2009 and Walid al-Bunni was acquitted.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Wikileaks – free speech needs YOU now #wikileaks #freespeech #amnesty

If you’ve not already noticed, Wikileaks is currently closed for business, facing a funding crisis. Wikileaks (different link which goes into the background of Wikileaks) has been a crucial tool for liberals and free speech campaigners in the battle against state censorship and corporate bullying.  In 2008, it won The Economist New Media Award. In 2009, it shared the Amnesty International New Media Award.

YOU have the chance to make a difference. Don’t leave it to other people.

Make a donation. Let’s face it: $25 is a small price to pay to help turn the tide against corruption and secrecy.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Anwar Al-Bunni: Smiling and with his head held high… #albunni #allabwani #amnesty #syria

Anwar al-Bunni - photo released by family

On Wednesday I blogged about the German Association of Judges awarding Anwar al-Bunni their prestigious human rights prize. On that page is a link to an article by Peter Franck und Ruth Jüttner of Amnesty International Berlin. My German is just about passable enough for me to be able to recognise that their words merited a fuller, more accurate translation. Thankfully, as a professional linguist, Dad’s German is better than mine…

Peter and Ruth paint a picture in words of a dignified and noble man, and his extraordinary family, who have peaceably defied authority to defend the human rights of their Syrian countrymen – much like Anwar’s friend and colleague, Kamal al-Labwani. I have tried to contact the authors to ask if I might post a translation, but so far to no avail. I hope they will forgive me my eagerness to post their words in English, that more might read about the efforts of Anwar al-Bunni.

Please click the picture below to be taken to the German original:

The translation which follows is a direct text translation, with only very slight editing for form. I have taken the liberty of inserting some links if you wish to find out more information. Thanks Dad for performing the translation so quickly and so effectively. I hope you all find Peter and Ruth’s words as inspiring and humbling a read as I did.

Translator Geoff Williams

Smiling and with his head held high…

Peter Franck und Ruth Jüttner, translated by Geoff Williams

On 24 April 2007, smiling, and with his head held high, the Syrian lawyer and human rights defender Anwar al-Bunni entered the courtroom of the No.1 Criminal Court in Damascus. In accordance with Article 286 of the Syrian Criminal Code he was charged with the “promulgation of false information likely to endanger the state.” The reason for this serious allegation were statements made to the press by Anwar al-Bunni in April 2006 in which he denounced torture and maltreatment in Syrian prisons.

In concrete terms, the lawyer had demanded to know the causes for the death of 26 yr old Mohammed Schaher Haysa. This young man was detained for several months at an unknown location. In April 2006 the authorities had handed over his body, which showed traces of torture, to his family. During his trial Anwar al-Bunni demanded that the Syrian authorities should investigate the death of Mohammed Shaher Haysa.  The court did not, however, pursue the allegations of serious mistreatment and instead sentenced Anwar al-Bunni to five years’ imprisonment.

This draconian sentence provoked consternation amongst the family, supporters and defenders of al-Bunni, being far more severe than the three-year sentence usually imposed in similarly staged trials. Anwar al-Bunni accepted the judgement with composure and described the trial and verdict as a “politically motivated and blatant contravention of the right to freedom of expression, aimed at terrorising and intimidating the Syrian public and politically active citizens.”

It was not the first time that Anwar al-Bunni had demanded that the courts should investigate maltreatment and torture. In June  2002 he had defended the non-violent  political activist Aref Dalilah before the Supreme Court for State Security in Damascus. This court  was established five years after the imposition of the state of emergency in March 1968 and deals solely with cases of a political nature or which have a relevance to state security.

Proceedings before this court fall far short of the international standards for fair trials.  There is no appeal against decisions of the court, defendants have limited access to legal support and judges at the court have wide ranging discretion with regard to the format of the proceedings. This was also clear in the trial of Aref Dalilah. When Anwar al Bunni insisted that his client’s accusations of maltreatment should be recorded  and investigated he was forcibly removed from the courtroom by security officers. The presiding judge subsequently withdrew from him his accreditation to appear as a lawyer before the Supreme Court for State Security.

A month later Aref Dalilah, former Dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Aleppo, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for his support for political reform. In August 2008, after 7 years largely spent in solitary confinement, the 65 year-old was released as part of a presidential amnesty.

When still a young man within his family, Anwar al-Bunni, the second youngest of seven brothers and sisters, suffered persecution and years of incarceration because of his political activity. Since the late 1970’s four of his siblings have been imprisoned time and again for political reasons in various Syrian prisons and under appalling conditions.

Until the 1990’s the conditions in Syrian prisons were so degrading, humiliating and brutal that they amounted to systematic torture. According to later press statements from his older brother Akram, there were times when Anwar al-Bunni and their mother were the only members of the family not in prison and divided up visits to family members imprisoned in different prisons in different places between themselves.

When Anwar al-Bunni commenced his law studies in 1979 at the University of Damascus three of his brothers and one sister were in prison on political grounds. After a few years practice as a lawyer he undertook the defence of political prisoners in the courts and founded a committee to press for the release of political prisoners.

After the death of President Hafez al-Hassad and the succession of his son Bashar in June 2000, there was something of a political thaw, which has come to be known as the “Damascus Spring”. A sense of new horizons, inspired by the young president’s promise to drive reform forward, spread across the country. Numerous discussion circles developed amongst the populace where members of the opposition and intellectual debated the routes to political change, democracy and the achievement of human rights. During this period, together with other prominent human rights lawyers, Anwar al-Bunni founded in 2001 one of the first human rights organisations, the “Human Rights Association in Syria” (HRAS) which sought official recognition from the authorities.

Despite the regime’s return to an authoritarian style of leadership and massive suppression of dissent, Anwar al-Bunni continued his determined and courageous support for the victims of indiscriminate state violence. He was unflinching in his criticism of the 40 year-old state of emergency which aided and abetted the abuse of human rights on a huge scale. He remained in contact with journalists, foreign diplomats and with international human rights organisations. He informed the world public about the politically motivated trials of  activists campaigning peacefully for democratic change and about the conditions of his clients’ imprisonment.

The authorities reacted with sanctions intended to intimidate him. He was repeatedly brought before the Damascus bar association, was disciplined and temporarily barred from practising. He was harassed, intimated, threatened and kept under surveillance by the security services. In December 2003, intending to travel to Weimar to receive the city’s human rights prize on behalf of the reformist politician Riad Seif, at that time  and still today imprisoned, he was refused permission to trav el. An EU funded Human Rights Centre under his directorship was closed down by the authorities  in March 2006 only days after opening. Not only Anwar al-Bunni but his family also has been subject to punitive measures. In May 2007, just one month after he received his sentence, his wife Ragheda Issa Rafiki was deprived, with no reason given, of her civil servant post by order of Prime Minister Muhammed Naji al-Otri.

The 50 year-old lawyer has been in prison for three-and-a-half years in atrocious conditions. He shares a cell with thirty others, all convicted criminals. Both other prisoners as well as prison officers have physically brutalised and humiliated him. And yet his spirit is not broken. On behalf of a number of non-violent political prisoners he has repeatedly addressed open letters to the UN High Commission for Human Rights and the Syrian president, drawing attention to the conditions of their imprisonment. Anwar al-Bunni himself suffers from arthritis, a condition made worse by lack of movement and the dampness of the cells.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

China, Mercy and Akmal Shaikh #amnesty #humanrights #akmalshaikh

It is a sobering email to find yourself sending in the days immediately after Christmas:

Dear Ambassador Fu Ying,

I write to express my deep concern for Akmal Shaikh, who faces execution in China on December 29.

Akmal’s family has pleaded for his life to be spared, and my heart is with them at this terrible time. Akmal’s death, particularly during this holiday season, would destroy his children, his brother and his elderly mother, and tear the family apart.

I know that the Chinese people care deeply about family and I would like to join Akmal’s children in begging for mercy for their father.

This unusual case is not about politics, but about humanity and compassion — values that we share with the Chinese people. My plea to the Chinese authorities is based on the greatest respect for Chinese culture and for these shared values.

yours sincerely,

Ben Williams

If you’ve not done so yet, I would urge you to send it as soon as you can: to the Chinese Ambassador on secretary@chinese-embassy.org.uk and to the Prime Minister via the Number 10 website.

The case of Akmal Shaikh makes for tragic reading and one that, having had cause to have contact with mental health services in the UK, is very believable in terms of the circumstances of his arrest and subsequent explanation of events. Chinese criminal law recognises that mental incapacity reduces criminal responsibility, though the stark way it is written up in the Chinese criminal law suggests that there is a tremendous onus on the defendant to demonstrate diminution of responsibility due to mental ill health at the time the crime was committed.

Whilst the lack of facilities for the treatment of mental illness is a constant source of criticism in the British justice system, particularly in terms of prison care (see this BBC report for more info), a huge library of case law has been developed to help with the interpretation of circumstances (e.g. Wiki Mental Health, a continuously updated online database for professionals who need to understand mental health and the law). China has a powerfully symbolic opportunity to reveal a similarly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues of mental health. At the same time it would demonstrate that it is prepared to engage the language-deficient West in terms of European liberal democratic criminal law that can be readily understood.

For me, as citizen of country that is looking to foster enhanced trade relations with China’s provinces, and who has found himself having a small but real part in the conversation about such relationships, such a gesture would be a resonant signal that the identification of a shared global future is not some self-justifying, post-colonial Western construct – but a definite objective rooted in the practical, hard-nosed give-and-take of international politics and appreciated by a modern China willing to embrace the world.


Basildon District Council recently took part in a trade delegation organised by Essex County Council. Two councillors and two officers took part in the visit, which was to the Changzhou area of China’s Jiangsu province. It was reported by the Basildon Echo in this report. It was reported to the last Cabinet meeting (see item 7 on the Agenda) and received support as an initiative from both the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups (see Minute 812). Conservative Councillor Stephen Horgan, Deputy Leader of Basildon Council, was a member of that delegation and his blog report can be read here.

On November 7th, prior to the visit, I wrote to Conservative Councillor Tony Ball, Council Leader, raising amongst other things the imprisonment by the Jiangsu authorities of Guo Quan, the pro-democracy campaigner (see this Financial Times report). Guo Quan was the author of an open letter to the Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo calling for democratic government and multi-party elections [NB the later references to Falun Gong are disputed, apparently not appearing in the original Chinese version].  In my email, acknowledging the positive step this trade mission represented for Basildon, I made the following statement:

“As locally-elected politicians, we are the public face of a district that has been politically and economically shaped at a fundamental level by healthy competition between political parties. I hope you share my view that it is important to account for our robust democratic values in any dealings in Jiangsu Province and not see them set aside or devalued because they are in some way inconvenient.”

I don’t know if that statement was pompous, naïve or entirely appropriate.

I am yet to receive a response.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine