Summary and Current Status
On June 17, 2010, upon completion of his 30-month prison term, Syrian physician Yasser al-‘Eiti was released from ’Adra Prison.
Dr. al-‘Eiti was arrested on December 17, 2007. In late January 2008, numerous charges (see background for list) were brought against him, all of which stemmed from his involvement in peaceful political activities as a member of the general secretariat 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, he was convicted on all charges and sentenced to 30 months in prison. Amnesty International (AI) adopted him as a “prisoner of conscience” and called for his release.
Born in Riyadh in 1968, Dr. al-‘Eiti worked as a medical doctor in Damascus. Reported to be a poet and to have Islamic inclinations, he has several books and translations to his name.
In November 2007, Dr. al-‘Eiti traveled to Bahrain to attend the Third Arab Forum on Human Development. The two-day forum discussed the Arab Human Development Report: Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World. Dr. al-‘Eiti reportedly presented a paper entitled “The Role of Human Values in the Development of Women in the Arab World,” in which he asserted that political reforms were needed in the Arab World because, “If the value of human beings is not respected in society in general then it will affect women.”
Dr. al-‘Eiti 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 National Council of the DDDNC is 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. The National Council members elected Dr. al-‘Eiti and 16 others to serve on its general secretariat.
More than 50 people who attended the first meeting of the National Council of the DDDNC were subsequently arrested, including Dr. al-‘Eiti. He was arrested on December 17, 2007. Although most of those arrested were held without charge for a couple of days and then released, Dr. al-‘Eiti 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, Dr. al-‘Eiti 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, Dr. al-‘Eiti 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 Dr. al-‘Eiti’s transfer to ‘Adra Prison in a suburb of Damascus, where he remained for the duration of his imprisonment. 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 Dr. al-‘Eiti, who was detained incommunicado, was at grave risk of torture.
The trial of Dr. al-‘Eiti 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 Dr. al-‘Eiti as saying: “The right to freedom of expression is a sacred right, and to give it up is to give up one’s humanity, and I defend my right and the right of any Syrian citizen in his freedom of expression.” The court issued its guilty verdict on October 29, 2008, and sentenced Dr. al-‘Eiti and his co-defendants to 30-month prison terms.
Shortly after Dr. al-‘Eiti’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, Dr. al-‘Eiti’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-‘Eiti and other clients.
As noted above, during his imprisonment, Amnesty International considered Dr. al-‘Eiti to be a “prisoner of conscience” and called for his unconditional release on the grounds that he was detained solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly. This view was widely shared by the international community.