Summary and Current Status
On June 16, 2010, upon completion of her 30-month prison term, Syrian gynecologist Feda’a al-Horani was released from the women’s prison in Douma.
A prominent Syrian dissident, Dr. al-Horani was arrested on December 16, 2007. The numerous charges (see background for list) brought against Dr. al-Horani in late January 2008 stemmed from her involvement in peaceful political activities as president of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC)—an umbrella organization comprised of representatives of opposition political parties and pro-democracy groups in Syria. On October 29, 2008, following Criminal Court proceedings that failed to meet international fair trial standards, she was convicted on all charges and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Amnesty International adopted her as a “prisoner of conscience” and called for her release.
During her imprisonment, Dr. al-Horani’s serious ill-health was a significant concern. She had been diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1996. In late February 2008 she reportedly suffered from angina and was briefly taken to a hospital and then returned to prison.
Dr. al-Horani is a gynecologist, who studied medicine at the University of Baghdad. She owns al-Horani Hospital in the central Syrian city of Hama. Until the end of February 2008, the hospital was managed by her husband, a medical doctor, who specializes in emergency medicine. The al-Horani Hospital offers a variety of health services to the community, including advanced operations and heart surgeries. More than 60 medical specialists reportedly are involved in the hospital’s work.
A Sunni Arab, Dr. al-Horani reportedly has long been an outspoken proponent of Syrian nationalism. She is the daughter of Akram al-Horani, a former Syrian vice president who established the Arab Socialist Party in 1942. She reportedly has served in the general secretariat of the Arab National Congress, written several books, and completed a comparative study of constitutional systems in Syria from the early 1950s through the 1970s.
On December 1, 2007, Dr. al-Horani was one of a group of 163 individuals who attended the first meeting of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change (DDDNC). At this meeting, she was elected president of the National Council of the DDDNC, an umbrella organization comprised of representatives of Syria’s opposition political parties and pro-democracy groups. The Syrian government considers it to be an illegal organization. National Council members reportedly are from every Syrian province and from every sect, ethnic group, and political leaning, including leftists, liberals, conservatives, Kurds, and moderate Islamists. The DDDNC, often referred to as the Damascus Declaration, is a document—first made public on October 16, 2005—that calls for the establishment of a democratic system in Syria that respects citizens’ rights, ensures freedom of speech and association, and ends discrimination based on religious or political beliefs.
More than fifty people who attended the first meeting of the National Council of the DDDNC were subsequently arrested. Dr. al-Horani was the only woman in the group. Reportedly summoned to the intelligence office of the State Security Service in Hama on December 16, 2007, Dr. al-Horani was arrested as soon as she arrived (about 11:00 a.m.) and was immediately transferred to the capital. Although most of those arrested were held without charge for a few days and then released, Dr. al-Horani and several others were held without charge in incommunicado detention at the State Security headquarters in Damascus for about a month and a half, until her arraignment.
On January 28, 2008, amidst tight security, Dr. al-Horani and nine other National Council members appeared before a criminal court at the Palace of Justice in Damascus, headed by Third Investigative Judge Muhammad Subhi al-Sau’r in case number 1738. They reportedly were questioned for about four hours and arraigned on charges brought against them under Syria’s Penal Code by the public prosecutor. The charges included “weakening national sentiments and awakening racism and sectarianism” (Article 285), “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country” (Article 286), joining an “organization formed with the purpose of changing the financial or social status of the state” (Articles 304 and 306), and “carrying out acts or writing material the aim of which is to inflame sectarian or racist feelings or to provoke conflict between the sects and the rest of the nation” (Article 307). According to Khalil Maatuk, one of the defense lawyers, Dr. al-Horani and her co-defendants denied all of the charges brought against them, defending the legitimacy of their objective to promote peaceful democratic change.
Reliable reports indicate that Dr. al-Horani’s arraignment failed to conform to international standards for a free and fair trial in a number of substantive ways. Defense lawyers reportedly were prohibited from speaking to their clients prior to or during the proceedings. The judge did not permit the lawyers to obtain a copy of the list of charges leveled against their clients.
At the end of the arraignment, the judge reportedly ordered that Dr. al-Horani be remanded to the women’s prison in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, where she remained for the duration of her imprisonment. A joint statement on court irregularities that was issued by four Syrian human rights organizations noted that, when Dr. al-Horani’s son, other relatives, and her lawyer tried to get close to her in the courtroom before she was transferred to prison, security agents pushed them away, verbally abused them, and forcibly removed them from the court.
Following the arraignment, Amnesty International adopted Dr. al-Horani and her co-defendants as prisoners of conscience and called on the Syrian authorities to drop all charges against them and release them on the grounds that they were detained solely for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly. This view was widely shared within the international community.
The trial of Dr. al-Horani and her co-defendants began on July 16, 2008, before the First Damascus Criminal Court. Reports indicate that the trial was attended by friends and family of the defendants and several observers from European embassies. According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, the defendants explained that the aim of the “national assembly meeting on December 1, 2007, was the peaceful and calm democratic transformation … and that they are not seeking power” and stressed that the group did not act in secret, but rather made public statements. At the session on September 24, 2008, when defense arguments were presented, Dr. Horani is quoted as saying: “To end the state of emergency and the martial courts and to improve public freedoms—especially freedom of expression—are necessary conditions to improve the living situation of the Syrian citizen.” The court rendered its guilty verdict on October 29, 2008, and sentenced Dr. al-Horani and her co-defendants to 30-month prison terms.
Shortly after Dr. al-Horani’s conviction and sentencing, her lawyer reportedly presented a formal appeal before Syria’s Supreme Court (criminal room). More than eight months later, on July 14, 2009, that court issued a ruling denying the appeal and confirming her 30-month prison sentence.
On July 28, 2009, Dr. al-Horani’s lawyer, Muhannad al-Hassani, was arrested by Syrian State Security. Prior to Mr. al-Hassani’s arrest state security officials had summoned him for questioning on several occasions. The questioning reportedly centered on his human rights work, including his defense of political detainees. Three days after his arrest, Mr. al-Hassani was charged with “weakening national sentiments” and “spreading false news.” On June 23, 2010, following Criminal Court proceedings that failed to meet international fair trial standards, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Amnesty International considers him to a “prisoner of conscience,” who is unjustly imprisoned because of his legitimate human rights work on behalf of Dr. al-Horani and other clients.
Despite Dr. al-Horani’s serious ill-health, she was subjected to harsh conditions of confinement during her incarceration. She was held at the women’s prison in Douma in a cell with a number of women who had been convicted of serious crimes. Dr. al-Horani’s confinement, as a political prisoner, with common criminals contravened both Syrian domestic law and the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which stipulates that, “The different categories of prisoners shall be kept in separate institutions or parts of institutions.” During her prison sentence, Dr. al-Horani reportedly was permitted one weekly 15-minute visit with family members, who are separated from her by two metal grilles.
Diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1996, Dr. al-Horani continued to suffer from its effects in prison. On February 24, 2008, she reportedly suffered from angina and was taken to Eben al-Nafis Hospital in Damascus at the request of a prison doctor, only to be returned to prison the following day.
During the period that Dr. al-Horani was incarcerated, Syrian authorities took a number of actions that appeared to be retaliation for her peaceful political activities. Three days after Dr. al-Horani’s brief hospitalization, on the morning of February 28, 2008, police officers arrested her husband, Dr. Ghazi Alayyan, while he was at work at al-Horani Hospital. On the basis of an official warrant that terminated his Syrian residency permit, Dr. Alayyan was immediately taken to the Syrian-Jordanian border and deported from the country. A Palestinian born in Kuwait, Dr. Alayyan reportedly had lived with his wife in Syria since 1990.
On June 8, 2008, the Syrian authorities closed down the al-Horani Hospital on the grounds that the documentation of its new director—the person who had stepped in to replace Dr. Alayyan after his deportation—was incomplete. Authorities reportedly gave the hospital staff 48 hours to transfer patients, including those in intensive care, to other facilities. Following the intervention of Dr. al-Horani’s lawyers, al-Horani Hospital reportedly has been permitted to reopen.
Dr. al-Horani served her 30-month prison term in its entirety. She was released from prison on June 16, 2010. Shortly after her release, Dr. al-Horani is quoted as saying, “I thank all who stood with me during my detention and kept my morale high."