DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian authorities on Thursday freed dissident Aref Dalila, jailed seven years ago after calling for freedom of speech and assembly and abolishing monopolies in the single party country.
“Spending so long in jail for committing no crime was beyond my imagination. My health has been deteriorating and they finally let me go. All what I can say at this point is thank God,” Dalila told Reuters after his release.
His lawyer, Mohannad al-Hassani, said: “We hope that this will be the beginning of freedom for the rest of the prisoners of conscience in Syria.”
Dalila, an economist, was serving a 10-year jail sentence for weakening national feelings and seeking to change the constitution. He was released from intelligence services’ custody and is now with his family.
One official called Dalila “the best economist in Syria”. The state’s Damascus University fired him from his job as dean of the faculty of economics two years before his arrest.
Dalila was also a leader of the Damascus Spring, a movement of intellectuals and opposition figures that campaigned for democracy to replace four decades of Baath Party rule when President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.
Security forces crushed the movement several months later and jailed its leaders. France and the United States have been leading international calls to free Dalila, 67, and other secular political prisoners in Syria.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to visit Syria next month. Diplomats in the Syrian capital say French officials have brought up the issue of human rights during meetings with their Syrian counterparts in the last few months.
Relations between Syria and Western Europe improved after Syria embarked on indirect peace talks with Israel earlier this year. A deal that ended a prolonged political crisis in Lebanon, where the opposition is led by Syria’s ally Hezbollah, also contributed to the thaw.
Assad, however, has rejected what he described as foreign interference in the prisoners issue and said the jailed opponents have violated the constitution. Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup and banned all opposition.
Human rights activists say Syria holds thousands of political prisoners, mostly without trial. A rare public trial started last week of 12 dissidents jailed in 2007 after trying to revive the Damascus Spring.
Among them is Fida al-Horani, daughter of late Baath Party leader Akram al-Horani, and opposition leader Riad Seif, who had already been jailed for five years.
Ammar al-Qurabi, head of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, cautioned against expecting improvement in Syria’s observance of international human rights standards as a consequence of European diplomatic overtures toward Damascus.
“If there was a change of direction the authorities would have cancelled these trials and dropped the charges,” Qarabi said. “The arrests show no sign of stopping either.”
Editing by Robert Hart