Syrian Human Rights Activist Mazen Darwish Released

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Abd al-Rahman Hamada, Hussein Gharir, Mazen Darwish, Hani al-Zitani and Mansour al-Omari

Abd al-Rahman Hamada, Hussein Gharir, Mazen Darwish, Hani al-Zitani and Mansour al-Omari

From a country where there is little reason to celebrate, here is some good news: Amnesty International learned Monday that Syrian human rights activist Mazen Darwish, who had been jailed by the Assad government on trumped-up terrorism charges, has been released.

His release follows last month’s release of Hani al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir, two of Darwish’s colleagues from the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).

The three were the focus of a significant Amnesty International campaign over the past three years, including efforts through Write For Rights and a Day of the Disappeared campaign. It is right that we offer a little celebration today, even as we remind ourselves that the good news doesn’t change the situation of the thousands of people in jail for political activity, the many deaths in custody, the more than 200,000 people killed in the conflict and the continuing humanitarian crisis that has trapped more than 7 million internally displaced Syrians and put more than 4 million into refugee camps.

But Mazen Darwish’s release is still worth celebrating because he and his colleagues at SCM represented what the Syrian uprising was meant to be, and what could have been. They represent the belief of the Syrian people that they deserve a better future, a future based on respect for human rights.

Mazen Darwish, undated photo. Five staff of an NGO, the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, including its director, Mazen Darwish, are still detained in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance, despite orders for Mazen Darwish to be brought before a military court.  Mazen Darwish was arrested along with a group of 13 staff members of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression as well as two visitors who were in the office on 16 February when it was raided by uniformed men believed to be members of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence. Eleven members of the group have since been released, eight of them on bail to await trial before a military court.  Mazen Darwish, Hussein Gharir, Hani al-Zitani, Mansour al-Omari and Abd al-Rahman Hamada are detained incommunicado at an unknown location. The authorities have ignored their families and lawyers' repeated requests for information about them. Amnesty International believes them to be prisoners of conscience, held solely on account of their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and association in the CMFE. According to recently released detainees, Mazen Darwish and Hussein Gharir are being held at an Air Force Intelligence branch in Damascus, while Hani al-Zitani, Mansour al-Omari and Abd al-Rahman Hamada are believed to be held in the town of al-Mo?damiyah, just outside Damascus. Three men who were detained at the same base from 19 March until 22 April have said that they and the three SCM staff members were tortured and beaten there.  The eight awaiting trial before a military court in Damascus have been charged with ?having an illegal recording device with a view to distributing banned publications?. According to their lawyers, the judge overseeing the proceedings made two requests to the Air Force Intelligence to present Mazen Darwish as a witness during hearings on 29 May and 25 June but the security forces failed to comply. The lawyers asked the judge to file another request for the next hearing, scheduled for 6 August.

Mazen Darwish

In the early days of the Syrian uprising, the SCM played a key role in getting out information about developments in Syria. As journalists had only limited access to the country, Darwish and others collected reports of human rights abuses and announced them to the world through blogs and other communications.

But what we call human rights work and free speech, the Assad government considers terrorism. The SCM’s work ended in February 2012, when the SCM offices in Damascus were raided by officers of the Air Force Intelligence service. Darwish, al-Zitani, Gharir and others were arrested.

For more than nine months, the SCM prisoners were held in conditions that amounted to enforced disappearances, shut off from legal assistance and family visits and subjected to torture.

In February 2013, a year after their arrest, the three activists and two of their other colleagues, were accused of “publicizing terrorist acts” before the Anti-Terrorism Court. The trial, to Amnesty’s knowledge, never was completed; Darwish and his colleagues simply languished in a prison system where torture and ill-treatment is known to be systematic.

Darwish, Zitani and Gharir should never have been arrested, much less tortured or charged with terrorism. The popular movement that started with children – children! — in Deraa expressing free speech offered Syria a path that promised to unify a country that has been divided for decades by oppression and terror. That movement was met by the Assad regime with a doubling down on violence and threats. The least surprising thing about the entire conflict is that the Assad regime’s violence simply opened the door to the chaos we now see in Syria.

There was another way, and the worse possible response for the world would be to forget that that hope is part of Syria. Let our deeply felt celebration that Mazen Darwish is out of prison renew our engagement with Syria, even as that joy is tempered by the reality that all of Syria remains a place of terror.

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