Summary and Current Status
In late November 2011, the CHR learned from a reliable source that Syrian dentist and prominent dissident Ahmad To’meh has been released from prison and is “ok.” His welfare and whereabouts had been unknown since July 5, 2011, when he was detained by Syrian security forces at his dental office in the city of Deir al-Zour.
Mr. To’meh previously served a full 30-month prison term from 2007-2010 for his peaceful calls for political and economic reform in Syria. At that time, Amnesty International considered him to be a “prisoner of conscience” who was detained solely because of his legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and his involvement in peaceful pro-reform protests.
A dentist by profession, Mr. To‘meh 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) on December 1, 2007. The Syrian government considers the National Council of the DDDNC 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. The National Council member elected Mr. To’meh as one of two secretaries to its general secretariat.
More than 50 people who attended the first meeting of the National Council of the DDDNC were subsequently arrested, including Mr. To‘meh. He was arrested on December 9, 2007. Although most of those arrested were held without charge for a couple of days and then released, Mr. To‘meh and several others were held in incommunicado detention at the State Security branch in Damascus for about a month and a half.
On January 28, 2008, amidst tight security, Mr. To‘meh and several other National Council members appeared before a criminal court at the Palace of Justice in Damascus headed by Investigating 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), “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), and “joining a secret organization” (Article 327). According to Article 327:
An organization is secret if its aims are deemed illegal and if it conducts its business in total or partial secrecy. An organization is secret if it is proved that its aims are contrary to the law and it did not inform the authorities, after it had been told to do so, or if it offered false or incomplete information on the following: its by-laws, the names of its members, the job descriptions of its members, the subject of its meetings, the source of its funding, and a break-down of its assets.
According to Khalil Maatuk, one of the defense lawyers, Mr. To‘meh and the other defendants denied all of the charges brought against them.
Reports indicate that the court proceedings that day 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 during the proceedings. The judge did not permit the lawyers to obtain a copy of the list of charges leveled against their clients.
The judge reportedly ordered pre-trial detention and Mr. To‘meh’s transfer to ‘Adra Prison in a suburb of Damascus. Subjected to harsh conditions of confinement, he reportedly was forced to sleep in a corridor for nine days without bedding or adequate covering, at a time when the temperature fell below freezing at night. Amnesty International (AI) expressed concern at the time that Mr. To‘meh, who was detained incommunicado, was at grave risk of torture.
The trial of Mr. To‘meh and his co-defendants began on July 16, 2008, in a 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 the case was made for the defense, Human Rights Watch quoted Mr. To’meh as saying: “It is difficult to judge someone for his thoughts after democracy has become the way to determine people’s opinions and ideas.” The court issued its guilty verdict on October 29, 2008, and sentenced Mr. To’meh and his co-defendants to 30-month prison terms. He served his entire sentence at ’Adra Prison.
Shortly after Mr. To’meh’s conviction and sentencing, his 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 his 30-month prison sentence.
On July 28, 2009, Mr. To’meh’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. Mr. al-Hassani subsequently was tried, convicted, and sentenced to a three-year prison term for “weakening national sentiments” and “spreading false news.” Granted a presidential amnesty, he was released from prison after having served more than one year and ten months of his sentence. AI considered him to a “prisoner of conscience” because of his legitimate human rights work on behalf of Mr. To’meh and other clients.
As mentioned above, Syrian security forces detained Mr. To'meh at his dental office in the city of Deir al-Zour on July 5, 2011. There was no further information on his welfare and whereabouts until late 2011 when a credible source told the CHR that he had been released and is "ok."