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World News

Syrian authorities interrogate 78-year-old dissident

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A Syrian military prosecutor interrogated a 78-year-old dissident on Wednesday and placed him under official arrest despite international condemnation, his lawyers said on Wednesday.

Security officials last week detained Haitham Maleh, a former judge, and held him without contact with the outside world before referring his case to a military court on Tuesday, they said.

Britain and international human rights organisations have called for the release of Maleh, who has for decades opposed the ruling Baath Party and the state of emergency it imposed after taking power in a 1963 coup. In the past he spent seven years as a political prisoner.

“Haitham Maleh is now officially in custody. When the regime makes its security its priority, the age of those whom it arrests becomes irrelevant,” lawyer Hassan Abdel-Azim told Reuters.

“The course of interrogation does not bode well for any hopes of a swift release. I expect political charges against my client to be filed under the state of emergency,” said Radeef Mustafa, who is also defending Maleh.

Several Western diplomats came to the military court building as Maleh, winner of a Dutch Geuzen medal in 2006 for promoting democracy, was being questioned in the basement.

He was then transferred to Adra prison, where leading political prisoners are held, including Mohannad al-Hassani, a lawyer whom Maleh had been defending against charges of “weakening national morale”.

“REPRESSION AND CORRUPTION”

The lawyers said Maleh’s interrogation centred on statements he had made in recent months criticising what he described as repression and rampant corruption in Syria.

He was also asked about a phone interview he gave this month to Barada, a Syrian opposition television station based abroad, in which he called for more government efforts to curb corruption, and a letter he had written to President Bashar al-Assad.

In response to questioning, Maleh invoked a speech Assad gave when he was sworn in as president in 2000, in which he stressed the need to “respect the other opinion”, following the authoritarian 30-year rule of his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad.

Assad has since made clear his priority is to “maintain national cohesion” in the face of what he termed external challenges facing Syria.

“Haitham Maleh did not do anything beyond expressing freedom of speech guaranteed by the Syrian constitution and international conventions Syria has signed,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.

Syria partly emerged from isolation by Western states last year. The government is still under U.S. sanctions, but it has opened trade contacts with several countries, particularly France, which hopes to sell the national airline billions of dollars’ worth of Airbus aircraft.

Editing by Andrew Roche

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