U.S. urges Syria to free prominent lawyer, others

WASHINGTON Thu Jun 24, 2010 6:48pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States called on Syria on Thursday to free a Syrian lawyer who has been honored abroad for defending opposition figures but has been sentenced to three years in prison for "weakening national morale."

Mohannad al-Hassani, 43, was arrested last year after campaigning throughout his professional life against the charge, which he has called "medieval" but which the Syrian government uses regularly against its political opponents.

"We regard the sentencing of Hassani to three years in prison as an example of Syria's failure to comply with minimum international human rights standards," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in an emailed comment. Hassani received the sentence from a Damascus court this week.

"Convicting Hassani on charges of spreading false information that undermined national morale and the dignity of the state sends a clear message to the world: Syria will not tolerate peaceful forms of freedom of expression," Toner added.

In addition to calling for Hassani's release, he said, Syria should free Haitham al-Maleh, a 79-year-old lawyer who was arrested in October, and Ali al-Abdallah, who was released from Syria's Adra prison last week and immediately rearrested.

Both face the same charge of weakening national morale.

The Syrian government has intensified a campaign of arrests of political opponents over the last two years. Despite this, it has enjoyed international rehabilitation after years in isolation due to disputes with the West over Syria's role in Lebanon and Iraq, and its support for militant groups.

Abdallah was among 12 people arrested during 2007 and jailed after they tried to revive the Damascus Declaration, a rights movement named after a document signed in 2005 by opposition figures.

The document demanded that bans on freedom of speech and assembly be lifted, and that emergency law be abolished. This has governed Syria since 1963 when the ruling Baath Party took power, banning any opposition.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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