U.S. demands Syria release political prisoners

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday harshly criticized Syria for arbitrarily arresting political opponents and called on it to free four dissidents.

“The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.”
—Isaiah 17:1

The State Department made its appeal before Syria’s April parliamentary election, urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to show greater respect for political freedoms.

“We deplore arbitrary arrest and detention of political prisoners by the Syrian government,” the State Department said in a statement, saying it was particularly concerned about activists Anwar al-Bunni and Kamal al-Labwani.

Bunni, a non-partisan campaigner for political freedoms, was dragged screaming from his home by security forces in May 2006. Labwani was jailed in November 2005 after he attended a White House meeting.

The State Department said both men were being tried in criminal courts “for expressing their opinions.”

“We join others in calling on the Syrian government to immediately and unconditionally release them and other prisoners of conscience including Mahmoud Issa and Michel Kilo,” the statement added.

Issa, a Communist politician, and Kilo, a prominent political writer, were detained after signing a declaration that criticized Syrian policy toward Lebanon.

Independent human rights groups say Syria strictly limits freedom of expression and note that emergency rule has been in effect since 1963, when the Baath Party took power in a coup and banned political opposition.

mnesty International has said the state of emergency has led to thousands of suspected political opponents being detained, tortured and held incommunicado without charge or trial.

“The continued use of arbitrary arrests and detentions of its opponents demonstrates the Syrian regime’s contempt for accepted international human rights standards,” the State Department said.

“Open political discourse where people do not fear imprisonment simply for expressing their views is an essential element of democracy,” it added, calling on the Syrian government “to end its abusive practices.”

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