May 19, 2009 / 10:43 PM / 11 years ago

Syrian political writer set free after 3 years in jail

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian authorities released prominent writer Michel Kilo from prison Tuesday after he completed a three-year sentence for political crimes related to his calls to mend relations with neighboring Lebanon.

Prominent political writer Michel Kilo is seen in Damascus in this November 2005 file photograph. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/Files

“Michel Kilo was set free tonight. I spoke to him. He is now at home,” Kilo’s lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani told Reuters.

Kilo’s jail term expired last Thursday. He was moved to a security compound and kept under arrest there for another five days before he was released, the Syrian observatory for Human Rights said.

“Congratulations on your return to freedom, Michel Kilo. All prisoners of conscious in Syria must be set free. Arbitrary arrests must cease,” a statement by the group said.

The 69-year political writer was a leading signatory of the Damascus-Beirut Declaration, a 2006 document signed by 500 intellectuals and political activists from Syria and Lebanon.

Shortly after the declaration was issued, Kilo was arrested and charged with weakening national morale.

The document urged the Damascus government to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, a move demanded by the international community and taken by Syria two years later.

The declaration also called for demarcating the Syrian-Lebanese border and an end to political killings in Lebanon following the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, a parliamentarian and former prime minister, and other figures who were mostly opposed Syria’s role in Lebanon.

Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, another signatory, received a five year sentence on the same charge as Kilo. He is still in jail despite Western calls on Syria to release him.

Unlike other non-violent critics of the government, who sometimes are let free after completing three quarters of their sentence, Kilo, served his full term.

The United States and the European Union had called repeatedly on the Syrian government to free Kilo and French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened in vain with President Bashar al-Assad during a visit to Damascus last year.

Kilo had tried to operate within the confines of Syria’s political system, which has been monopolized by the Baath Party since it took power in a 1963 coup, banned all opposition and imposed emergency law still in force today.

His captivity sent a signal that even milder forms of dissent were not allowed in Syria, human rights campaigners said.

“Kilo had concluded a while before his arrest that the regime was not interested in any meaningful political reform,” one opposition figure said.

The Syrian government has stepped up a campaign of arrests against opposition figures since its relations with the West improved sharply last year. Officials have dismissed Western criticism about lack of observance of human rights in Syria as interference in internal Syrian affairs.

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