BEIRUT Syrian authorities have released an 80-year-old former judge, one of President Bashar al-Assad's most outspoken critics, under an amnesty marking the anniversary of the 1963 coup which brought the Baath Party to power.
"I am in good shape mentally, which annoys the regime. The march for peaceful democratic change in Syria must continue," Haitham al-Maleh told Reuters after his release Tuesday.
"There are thousands of political prisoners left who have been thrown in jail upon the orders of the security apparatus. One day we will have an independent judiciary," he added.
Khalil Matouk, one Maleh's lawyers said the ex-judge was the only political prisoner included in the amnesty because he was over 70 years old.
Maleh was jailed for three years last July for "weakening national morale" after he criticized corruption in Syria and called on Assad to reveal the fates of tens of thousands of people missing since a government crackdown in the 1980s.
He was one of 13 political prisoners who went on hunger strike to protest against "political detentions and oppression," a Syrian rights group said Monday.
Maleh was freed under a presidential amnesty marking the 48th anniversary of the coup when the Baath Party seized power, banning opposition and imposing emergency laws which are still in place. The amnesty covered those convicted of minor offences and prisoners over the age of 70.
Mal spent six years as a political prisoner in the 1980s during the rule of the current leader's father, Hafez al-Assad, after he opposed what he called the illegal takeover by the Baath Party of the judiciary and the Lawyers Union.
The United States has led calls for Syria to release Maleh and scores of Syrian writers, journalists, opposition figures and lawyers who have been jailed in the last five years.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had said Monday that 12 other prisoners went on hunger strike alongside him.
They included lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, jailed for five years in 2007, writer Ali Abdallah, who faces a military trial for criticizing Syria's ally Iran, and Mahmoud Barish, who is also standing trial for criticizing corruption.
"The time has come to end this state of oppression, in line with the winds of democratic change sweeping through the Arab world," the organization quoted the prisoners saying.
They said that rights could not be "legitimate in Egypt and Tunisia and other countries, and not legitimate in Syria."
Syrian authorities have intensified a long-running campaign of arrests of dissidents and opposition figures since mass protests overthrew rulers in Egypt and Tunisia.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Michael Roddy and Paul Taylor)