Hivos welcomes the news that lawyer and journalist Mazen Darwish has finally been released after more than three years in prison. He was arbitrarily detained since February 2012 for promoting freedom of expression and monitoring gross human rights violations committed in Syria. His wife,Yara Badr, told the AFP on 10 August that his release is pending a verdict in his case to be issued later this month.
Darwish is the president of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression. Throughout his career as a journalist, lawyer, and human rights defender, he has repeatedly condemned the use of excessive force against civilians, advocated for freedom of expression, and fought for the rights of journalists. From the start of the Syrian revolution, Darwish and his team at the SCM documented the abuses against the civilian population despite the severe personal risks.
For his media freedom advocacy, Darwish won the UNESCO Cano World Press Freedom Day Prize in 2015, the English (UK) chapter of PEN International announced him as the 2014 PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage in October 2014 and the Reporters Without Borders Press awarded him the Freedom Prize in 2012.
On 16 February 2012, authorities arrested Darwish and 13 of his SCM colleagues following a raid by Syrian Air Force personnel. Darwish and fellow human rights defenders Hani Al-Zaytani and Hussein Ghrer were held for two years without charge. In January 2014, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Darwish, Al-Zitani and Gharir were arbitrarily detained and called for their immediate release.
In March 2014, a Syrian court heard the prosecutor present charges of “publicizing terrorist acts”’ under Article 8 of Syria’s 2012 Anti-Terrorism Law, often used to criminalise free speech in the country. Darwish, Al-Zaytani and Ghrer are all civilians whose charges do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Anti-Terrorism Court.
Following the special presidential amnesty issued on 18 July 2015 at the end of Ramadan, which led to the release of hundreds of prisoners, Hussein Ghrer and Hani al-Zaitani were released on 17 July and 18 July 2015, respectively. Despite their release, all three human rights defenders are still on trial. Their trial has been rescheduled twenty-five times since February 2013 and is now scheduled for 30 August 2015.
Mazen Darwish and his SCM colleagues have always peacefully promoted human rights and freedoms, especially freedom of expression. For this reason, Hivos is convinced that the charges against them are politically motivated, brought solely because of their dedicated work as human rights defenders. Hivos calls on the Syrian government to drop all charges against Mazen Darwish and his colleagues at SCM. SCM staff should resume their work freely so they can contribute to a better future for Syria.