Updated 27, January 2014
Mazen Darwish and two of his colleagues of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), Hussein Ghreir and Hani Zaitani, are scheduled to stand trial at the Counter Terrorism Criminal Court in Damascus. Darwish and his colleagues, who are currently being held in Damascus’ Adra jail, have been summoned to the anti-terrorism court five times before for trial, but previous sessions have been postponed. The trial is now scheduled for January 27, 2014.
Darwish and 13 other staff members — including his wife — were arrested on February 16, 2012, when air force intelligence agents raided the SMC’s office in Damascus. Some of them have been kept mostly in solitary detention, denied access to their relatives and lawyers, and subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Seven were conditionally released on 18 March 2012 and had to report to the AFI detention centre every day for further interrogation. The others were kept in incommunicado detention at the AFI detention centre. Darwish, Ghreir and Zaitani were accused of “terror” charge.
On 11 September 2012, seven SCM staff members and one visitor were tried at a military court in Damascus for ‘possessing prohibited materials with the intent to disseminate them’, according to Article 148 of the Criminal Code. The military prosecutor referred to “recorded material” in the possession of the detained activists, with which they allegedly intended to “call for protests” against the government. The seven staff members were convicted for the length of their pre-trial arrest and released immediately, while the visitor of the centre was found not guilty.
Darwish, Ghreir and Zaitani are specifically charged with ‘promoting terrorism acts’ under article 149 of the Syrian Penal Code and article 8 of the Counter Terrorism Law of 2012. The Law of Terrorism stipulates that those found guilty of promoting terrorism according to Article 8 can be sentenced to three to fifteen years of imprisonment and hard labour. Because of the political motives Hivos believes to be behind this case, a harsh sentence would seem more likely.
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 is also concerned that the procedures of their court cases do not comply with international standards of fair trial.
On 17 May, Hivos together with 18 other international organizations called for the international community to persuade the Syrian authorities to release the five human rights defenders immediately and unconditionally. The Syrian authorities have not reacted. The SCM trial was covered in detail in paragraphs 33 and 34 of the 31 July 2013 Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (see documents in right sidebar).
Hivos has a partnership with the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) since the middle of 2010. For a decade, Mazen Darwish and his colleagues have courageously promoted human rights and fundamental freedoms in Syria – an authoritarian state with a highly repressive regime. As is amply documented, the Assad regime turned to even more brutal violence against the peaceful protestors and ordinary citizens who expressed dissent with the authorities starting in March 2011.
Since they started their work in 2004, Mazen Darwish and his colleagues have been arrested and detained several times, facing both physical harassment and administrative restrictions, including travel bans and the systematic rejection of SCM’s official registration in Syria. SCM managed to continue its work, despite being shut down by Syrian authorities on three occasions.
In November 2013, a UN Human Rights Council’s working group described the detention of the three men as “arbitrary,” saying the men should be released.