July 4, 2010 / 5:43 PM / 8 years ago

Syria jails elderly government critic for 3 years

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - A Syrian military court jailed on Sunday a 79-year-old lawyer who campaigned for decades for an end to emergency law, prompting fears that he may not survive the three-year term.

Syrian dissident Haitham Maleh speaks to Reuters during an interview at his office in Damascus April 14, 2006. REUTERS/Khaled Al Hariri

The court convicted Haitham Maleh, who already spent six years as a political prisoner in the 1980s and had been banned from leaving Syria, on charges of “weakening national morale.”

“This is tragic. Haitham Maleh is an old and ill man,” one of his lawyers said.

The United States condemned the jailing of Maleh and another lawyer who was convicted last month on the same charges and called for their release.

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

Maleh was arrested last year after he stepped up criticism of corruption and the emergency law, which was imposed by the ruling Baath Party after it took power in 1963, banning any opposition.

His sentencing came two weeks after Mohannad al-Hassani, a 43-year-old lawyer, was also jailed for three years on the same charges. “Mohannad is young and can take three harsh years in jail. The chances that Maleh can live through them are slim,” another lawyer said.

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the arrests were “part of a worrying trend.”

“We join the international community in condemning the recent decisions by the Syrian government to convict and sentence human rights lawyers,” he said in a statement.

Damascus should release Maleh, al-Hasani and other Syrian citizens “who have been imprisoned solely for seeking to exercise their right to peaceful free expression and freedom of association,” he added.

Maleh was awarded the Dutch Geuzen Medal in 2006, named after resistance fighters against the Nazis. Numerous international organizations and Western governments have called for his release.

Washington has also called on Syria to free Ali al-Abdallah, a writer and political prisoner who was released on June 23 and sent back to prison a day later for an article criticizing Syria’s ties with Iran.

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 which demanded that bans on freedom of speech and assembly be lifted and emergency law abolished.

Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; editing by Dominic Evans and David Stamp

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