Prominent Syrian leftist jailed 7 and a half years

A Syrian court sentenced a 69-year old leftist to 7 1/2 years in jail on Sunday, signalling a continued tough line against dissent after a revolution in Tunisia that jolted Arab governments, rights activists said.

Abbas Abbas, who had already been jailed for 17 years under the rule of late President Hafez al-Assad for belonging to the Workers Communist Party, was arrested with three of his comrades in May 2009.

They stood trial more than a year later in front of a state security court on charges of belonging to a "secret organisation", in a case lawyers said underscored the severity of curbs on speech and association.

The charge has traditionally been used against suspected members of independent political parties, which have been banned in Syria since the Baath Party took power in 1963, outlawing opposition and imposing emergency law that remains in force.
 
"You're not doing any good to Syria by sending me to jail. What ever happened to dialogue and citizens' rights? When will you unclench your fist?" Abbas told the judge in the closed session after the sentencing, according to lawyers present.

The remaining three received a four-year sentence each. Two of them had also spent years as political prisoners affiliated with the Communist Labour Party, which intensified its opposition to the Baath Party's monopoly on power in the 1980s and was crushed.

There was no comment from the Syrian authorities. Officials have repeatedly said that political prisoners in Syria have broken the constitution and that outisde criticism of the state's human rights record is interference in Syria's affairs.
 
NO RIGHT OF APPEAL

Rulings by the state security court, which holds its sessions at a cordoned section of the Palace of Justice in the centre of the Syrian capital, cannot be appealed.
 
Abbas has been farming a plot of land near his village in the countryside surrounding the city of Hama since he was released from jail in 1997 and is banned from returning to his public sector job.

A former political prisoner following the case said rights defenders had expected the four to receive a two-year sentence each, but he said a dismissive Syrian government reaction to the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis this month raised the spectre of harsher sentences.
 
"The long jail terms still came as a shock. They seem to be a message from the regime that Tunisia has no effect on Syria whatsoever and that the authorities are not afraid to give fierce sentences," he said.

A Syrian newspaper controlled by the government said that Ben Ali was toppled because he was close to the West. But the authorities raised a key subsidy a week ago, in a reversal of policy after Ben Ali was driven from power by unrest over prices, unemployment and state repression.
One human rights lawyer, who declined to be named, citing moves by the government controlled Lawyers Union to investigate rights defenders, said sentences by the state security court, which has as been criticised by international rights organisations as lacking due process, "had no logic to them".

"The only crime these four committed was that they had met," he said.

Syria's ruling hierarchy has been mounting an intense campaign against independent figures and rights lawyers in the past four years, although Western pressure on the government has lessened and Damascus is no longer ostracised.

 

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