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Syria: release of 'Damascus Spring' dissident Kamal al-Labwani welcomed

Prominent Syrian dissident and prisoner of conscience Kamal al-Labwani was released today after spending six years in prison for his peaceful political opposition to the ruling regime.

Although he was due to be set free on 9 November, he was transferred to a detention centre run by one of Syria’s security forces on that date and only released after being held for several days more. Following his release, Kamal al-Labwani has been reunited with his family at their home in al-Zababdeh, near Damascus.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Acting Director Philip Luther said:

“After a long ordeal in prison - some of which he endured in solitary confinement - it is very welcome news that Kamal al-Labwani has been set free and reunited with his family.

“In recent years we have become increasingly aware of cases where the Syrian authorities delay releasing prisoners of conscience beyond their prison sentences, seemingly in a final attempt to press them not to resume their political or human rights work when they leave prison. This practice must be stopped.

“Kamal al-Labwani and all former prisoners of conscience in Syria must have their right to freedom of expression protected and be allowed to engage in peaceful political activism if they choose to do so.”

The release comes amid continuing violence in Syria, in which thousands have been killed during months of pro-reform protests. This includes several dozen protesters and soldiers in recent days.

As part of a deal with the Arab League, the Syrian government has agreed to release prisoners held in connection with the current unrest.

Kamal al-Labwani, who founded the Liberal Democratic Union opposition party, has spent nine out of the past ten years behind bars following a series of unfair trials. He was first imprisoned in 2001 for peaceful pro-reform activities during the “Damascus Spring” period which followed President Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration. Arrested after attending a political seminar in the house of a fellow opposition activist, he was jailed for three years on charges which included “inciting armed revolt”.

Despite suffering harsh conditions in prison, including periods of solitary confinement, on his release in 2004 Kamal immediately resumed his campaign for political reform. In November 2005, he was arrested at Damascus airport after returning from a trip to Europe and the USA. That trip, which included talks with White House officials and human rights organisations, earned him a 12-year jail sentence, charged with “scheming with a foreign country… with the aim of causing it to attack Syria”. The court ignored evidence which demonstrated his opposition to any such attack.

While serving that sentence, Kamal al-Labwani was held with criminals who considered him a “traitor” because he had visited the USA. Some of them alleged he had criticised the Syrian authorities after returning to his prison cell from a court hearing. This led to a further three-year jail sentence being imposed in 2008 for “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country”.

During his most recent imprisonment he has suffered ill-treatment, including beatings and periods of solitary confinement in a tiny underground cell. Some of his family members have been detained for demanding his release.

A presidential amnesty announced on 31 May 2011 led to his earlier 12-year sentence being halved. Subsequently, in August, his additional three-year sentence was overturned on appeal, leaving him to serve a reduced prison term of six years.

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