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Syria: Muhannad al-Hassani must be released

Amnesty International has condemned a three-year prison sentence imposed yesterday on a Syrian lawyer and human rights defender who had publicised the unfair trials of political prisoners. The organisation is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.

Muhannad al-Hassani, who last month won the prestigious 2010 Martin Ennals Award recognising the work of human rights defenders, was convicted by a Damascus court on Wednesday.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Director Malcolm Smart said:

“Muhannad al-Hassani should not have been on trial in the first place. He’s a prisoner of conscience who has done no more than stand up for the human rights of those who fall foul of the Syrian authorities and expose unfair trials and other abuses.”

The Damascus Criminal Court sentenced al-Hassani to three years in prison after   convicting him of “weakening national sentiment” and “conveying within Syria false news that could debilitate the morale of the nation” - vague and broadly-drawn catch-all charges that are regularly used by the Syrian authorities to jail peaceful critics and individuals who promote human rights in the country.

Two Amnesty International delegates were present in the court when the sentence was handed down. The charges were brought against Muhannad al-Hassani after he drew public attention to unfair trials of political prisoners before the notorious Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) and a death that may have been caused by torture or other ill-treatment in detention, and met foreign embassy officials to discuss human rights.

He also played a leading role in Sawasiyah, a local human rights organisation which, like others, has not been legally authorised by the authorities. He was arrested on 28 July 2009, days after he observed a trial before the SSSC during which an official seized and destroyed his notes.

Malcolm Smart added:

“Muhannad al-Hassani’s contribution to human rights has been internationally recognised. Yet, in Syria he has been prosecuted and jailed as if he were an enemy of the state.

“It is now high time for President Assad to intervene. He should order the immediate and unconditional release of Muhannad al-Hassani and order that the sentence and the charges against him are wiped from the slate.”

In May Muhannad al-Hassani was named as the winner of the 2010 Martin Ennals Award, the most prestigious international prize recognising the work of human rights defenders around the world. Muhannad al-Hassani has acted as defence lawyer in a series of trials of political prisoners and has gained a reputation as an outstanding defender of human rights.

The charges on which he was convicted carry a three to 15-year term of imprisonment. His lawyers are considering an appeal.

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