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Two Syrian Scientific Colleagues Freed
February 1, 2006

Two Syrian colleagues and long-time cases of the CHR—Walid al-Bunni (a medical doctor) and Fawwaz Tello (an engineer)—were among five members of civil society forums who were unexpectedly released from prison on January 18, 2006. They had served all but seven months of their five-year sentences. The release of these prodemocracy activists has been interpreted by many members of the international press as a step forward by the Syrian government following international outrage over the United Nations’ finding that it was involved in the planning of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

Dr. al-Bunni is an ear, nose, and throat specialist and a founding member of the Syrian Human Rights Society. Mr. Tello, an engineer, was an active member of both the Forum of Democratic Dialogue and the Human Rights Society of Syria.

Both men participated in discussion forums that were organized by civil society groups in 2000 and 2001 to promote democratic freedoms in Syria. During this time period, termed the “Damascus Spring,” newly elected Syrian President Bashir al-Assad spoke publicly about the need for democratic reform in the country and his government permitted a margin of freedom of expression. At the forums, Dr. al-Bunni, Mr. Tello, and their colleagues reportedly condemned government corruption and called for the granting of freedom of expression to complement economic reforms. In early 2001, however, as the popularity of the forums grew, the Syrian authorities imposed restrictions on their activities, stating that they had violated government guidelines. One of the restrictions imposed was a requirement that the groups obtain permission from the authorities before holding a forum. One of the groups, the National Dialogue Forum, led by parliamentarian Riad Seif, convened a forum on September 5, 2001, after permission was not been granted despite repeated requests.

Dr. al-Bunni, Mr. Tello and six other individuals who attended the forum were arrested and initially held in incommunicado detention. Some eight months later they were brought to trial before the State Supreme Security Court (SSSC), which has been widely criticized for its failure to meet international standards of jurisprudence. The SSSC convicted Dr. al-Bunni and Mr. Tello of "undermining the constitution, inciting sedition, and propagating lies."