On March 24, 2014, the General Prosecutor of the Anti-Terrorism Court of Damascus presented charges against Mr. Mazen Darwish, President of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), together with two other SCM members, Messrs. Mohamed Hani Al-Zaitani and Hussein Hammad Ghrer, with “publicizing terrorist acts” pursuant Article 8 of the 2012 Anti-Terrorism Law. Two of their other colleagues, Messrs. Mansour Omari and Abdel Rahman Hamada, who were conditionally released on February 6, 2013, will also stand trial for the same charges.
Defense lawyers challenged the jurisdiction of the Anti-Terrorism Court, arguing in particular that activities carried out by SCM, an NGO promoting human rights, could not be considered as terrorist acts. They also raised several procedural irregularities: the absence of arrest warrant at the time of arrest of the human rights defenders should render the case null and void; the fact that a Military Court ruled on September 11, 2012 that SCM staff members had served prison for a sufficient amount of time and that they should all be released; that the body which conducted the investigation and decided to bring charges had no authority to do so (Article 8 of the Criminal Procedure Code).
The next hearing is scheduled for June 18, 2014. Messrs. Mazen Darwich, Hani Zaitani, Hussein Ghrer, Mansour Omari and Abdel Rahman Hamada face a penalty of 15 years imprisonment.
“The indictment of the five SCM members on terrorism charges is absurd” declared Karim Lahidji, FIDH President. “It is a sad example of the mock justice delivered in Syria, which aims solely at sanctioning legitimate and necessary activities carried out by human rights defenders”.
“The Syrian government should not use its overbroad terrorism law to punish peaceful activists for their legitimate work”, said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General. “Further, their trial should not be held in the Anti-Terrorism Court, which does not afford defendants basic due process rights according to international fair trial standards”.
Mazen Darwish, Hussein Hammad Ghrer and Mohamed Hani Al-Zitani are detained since February 2012, for promoting freedom of expression and monitoring gross human rights violations committed in Syria. During nine months they were held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance and subjected to acts of torture. There has been no investigation into the abuses.
Despite repeated calls by the international community, including the United Nations, for the release of the three human rights defenders, the authorities have refused to release them. A May 15, 2013 UN General Assembly resolution included a demand for their immediate release and on November 15, 2013, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared their detention to be arbitrary and asked for their immediate release.
Bringing charges against the five human rights defenders, especially after the UN found their two-year pre-trial detention to be arbitrary, clearly breaches international norms. Accordingly, the Observatory calls on Syrian authorities to drop charges against them and release Mazen Darwish, Hussein Hammad Ghrer and Mohamed Hani Al-Zitani immediately and unconditionally as well as to order investigations into the above-mentioned allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
The Observatory urges more generally the Syrian authorities to release all human rights defenders detained in Syria for carrying out their legitimate and peaceful human rights activities.