Summary and Current Status
On November 15, 2011, after serving more than six years in prison, Syrian medical doctor Kamal al-Labwani was released from prison. Actions taken by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a judge (see details below) facilitated his early release from prison.
A prominent Syrian dissident, Dr. al-Labwani previously served a full three-year prison term for his peaceful calls for political and economic reform in his country and was released in September 2004. The CHR has worked on Dr. al-Labwani’s case since 2001.
Dr. al-Labwani was re-arrested on November 8, 2005, when he arrived at the Damascus airport after a trip to Europe and the United States. The charges brought against Dr. al-Labwani at that time—“providing false information,” “weakening national morale,” and “conspiring with a hostile nation to attack Syria”—stemmed from his peaceful criticism of government policies. On May 10, 2007, following Criminal Court proceedings that failed to meet international trial standards, he was convicted and sentenced to a 12-year prison term. Amnesty International considered Dr. al-Labwani to be a “prisoner of conscience.”
While Dr. al-Labwani was in prison serving his 12-year sentence, additional charges were brought against him twice in military court. In the first instance, on April 23, 2008, he was convicted of insulting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country” and sentenced to an additional three years’ imprisonment. Information about the second set of charges brought against Dr. al-Labwani in June 2008 and legal proceedings associated with them was incomplete.
During his college years, Kamal al-Labwani became politically active in Riad at-Turk’s Communist Party, which was functioning clandestinely at the time. In an interview he stated that he left the party after four years because of its lack of internal democracy. In 1981 he graduated from the medical school at Damascus University.
When Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in mid-2000, he spoke in his inaugural address of the necessity of reform and constructive criticism. For about a year, generally referred to as the “Damascus Spring,” Syrian authorities tacitly allowed a margin of freedom of expression. During this time Dr. al-Labwani served on both the administrative council of the Syrian Human Rights Committee and the editorial board of the organization's magazine, Amarji ("Freedom"). A loose network of Syrian intellectuals and businessmen began to hold forums where public affairs and political and cultural issues were discussed.
In February 2001, as the political forums reportedly gained popularity, the Syrian authorities began to require that their organizers obtain official permission before a forum could be held. That same month independent parliamentarian Riad Seif, the leader of the National Dialogue Forum, applied for official permission to hold a forum. After trying for seven months, without success, to obtain permission, MP Seif held the forum at his home on the outskirts of Damascus on September 5, 2001. Dr. al-Labwani was one of more than 400 people who reportedly attended and listened to guest speaker Professor Burhan Ghalyun, a sociologist from the Sorbonne University in Paris, lecture on the need for radical political change, the creation of a multi-party system, and an end to martial law.
Four days later, on September 9, 2001, Dr. al-Labwani was arrested at his home in Zabadani (50 kilometers north of Damascus) by undercover operatives of the Political Security Department Forces (al-Amn al-Siyassi), who reportedly lured him outside under the pretext of asking him to attend to a patient. He was one of a group of ten prominent leaders of Syrian civil society who were arrested during a three day period. Of this group, the CHR also undertook the cases of Walid al-Bunni, ‘Aref Dalila, and Fawwaz Tello.
According to Amnesty International (AI), after his arrest, Dr. al-Labwani was taken to ‘Adra Prison. He spent eight months in pre-trial detention. During that period he was held without bail, incommunicado, and in solitary confinement.
In March 2002 Dr. al-Labwani and several of the others who were detained with him went on hunger strike. A statement by the prisoners' wives said that the men were protesting their unjustified detention and limited access to legal counsel, and demanding better health care. According to Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the strike ended when the Syrian authorities took Dr. al-Labwani and two other detainees to the hospital. In late June 2002 AI reported that the men were no longer on hunger strike.
First trial, conviction, and three-year prison term
According to reliable reports, Dr. al-Labwani was not informed of the charges brought against him (“attempting to change the constitution by illegal means, inciting armed rebellion, and spreading false information about the government”) until the day that his trial began before the Syrian State Supreme Security Court (SSSC). Only then was he permitted access to his lawyer and family visits. As a result, Dr. al-Labwani was not able to work with his lawyer to properly prepare an adequate defense.
On August 28, 2002, the SSSC sentenced Dr. al-Labwani to three years’ imprisonment. Agence France Press reported that, according to defense lawyers, the judge stated that Dr. al-Labwani received a lighter sentence than the other co-defendants so that "he can exercise the medical profession and abandon politics." SSSC judgments are not subject to appeal before a higher authority, constituting a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Syria has ratified.
Dr. al-Labwani reportedly was held in solitary confinement for the duration of his three-year sentence. According to reports he was rarely even allowed short visits with his wife. In addition, he reportedly was forbidden to have books, newspapers, or any contact with the outside world. An artist, Dr. al-Labwani reportedly went on a hunger strike until prison authorities gave him basic painting materials. And, even then, they told him that he could paint only innocuous subjects. The last few months that he was in prison, when he reportedly was allowed exercise books and pencils, Dr. al-Labwani wrote a book about his experiences, which he titled “Ordinary Stuff.”
Dr. al-Labwani served his entire prison sentence and was released from custody in September 2004. When he was told that he was being released from prison, Dr. al-Labwani reportedly said that he would not leave unless his paintings—that had been confiscated by prison officials—were returned to him. Some, but not all of his paintings were returned, and he was released, reportedly after being warned that authorities would keep him under close surveillance.
Image Credit: Kamal al-Labwani
Upon his release, Dr. al-Labwani returned to work at his clinic five hours a day, five days a week. At the same time, he reportedly founded the Liberal Democratic Union (LDU, al-tajammu’a al-librali al-dimuqrati). The LDU is an opposition political alliance that espouses democracy, liberalism, and secularism. In early August 2005 some 200 people reportedly gathered at Dr. al-Labwani’s house to discuss the founding charter of the LDU. Reliable reports indicate that the police cordoned off the neighborhood in which the house is located for some 14 hours to prevent people from attending the meeting.
In late 2005, Dr. al-Labwani traveled for several months in Great Britain, Belgium, and the United States. During his trip, he met with human rights organizations and government officials and exhibited his previously banned artwork. He also gave interviews to the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra television and to Al-Mustaqilla, a London-based Arabic television station run by the Tunisian political opposition. While in Washington, D.C., he met with senior officials at the White House and the National Security Council. A week later, on November 8, 2005, he was arrested upon his arrival at Damascus airport. Dr. al-Labwani was reportedly taken from the airport to the Damascus branch of the Political Security Department Forces for interrogation. According to his lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, during questioning there Dr. al-Labwani was beaten, threatened, and insulted by a security official.
After he was processed by the Political Security Department Forces, Dr. al-Labwani was placed in pre-trial detention in the violent crimes ward of ‘Adra prison. According to Amnesty International (AI), during this period he received three-hour visits regularly from his family but had to speak to them through two sets of metal grilles. A January 2006 AI report notes that Dr. al-Labwani did not have a mattress at the start of his detention, but was able to buy one from a fellow prisoner.
Second trial, conviction and 12-year prison sentence
On May 11, 2006, Dr. al-Labwani’s trial began before the Criminal Court in Damascus. Initially, he was charged with “diminishing the stature of the state and making statements that sap the nation’s morale and weaken nationalist sentiment.” On the first day of the trial, however, without prior notification of Dr. al-Labwani or his lawyer, additional charges were leveled against him under Article 264 of the Syrian Penal Code. These charges included propagating false information abroad and inciting a foreign state to initiate aggression against Syria. (This latter charge was particularly worrisome because it carried possible sentences of the death penalty or life imprisonment.) Upon learning of these charges, Dr. al-Labwani reportedly testified before the court that he opposed any military action against Syria and rejected violence of any kind. He stressed that he had openly expressed his political opinions in Syria as well as abroad, chief among them his continued commitment to “democracy and the basic rights of citizens, which appear in the constitution.” A press account quoted him as testifying that, “countries are not built on prisons, but on dialogue.”
It appears that Dr. al-Labwani may not have had appropriate legal representation at the numerous court hearings that were part of his trial. The same month that his trial began, Dr. al-Labwani’s lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, was arrested by Syrian authorities and charged with insulting the president, government officials, or public servants. Mr. al-Bunni was subsequently convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Amnesty International considered Mr. al-Bunni to be a prisoner of conscience.
During Dr. al-Labwani’s trial, a number of actions were taken by Syrian authorities that give the impression that he and his family members were being singled out for harsh and retaliatory treatment. In the first instance, in July 2006, the Associated Press reported that Syrian authorities had banned Dr. al-Labwani’s wife, Samar Labwani, from traveling abroad.
In a second instance, uncorroborated press accounts indicate that Dr. al-Labwani was beaten and verbally abused by a criminal inmate at the behest of security forces in early November 2006. When Dr. al-Labwani filed a complaint about the incident, prison authorities reportedly ignored it. Another report indicates that, following the assault, Dr. al-Labwani’s family reiterated its earlier request that political prisoners be separated from ordinary criminals. Amnesty International expressed alarm at these reports and called for urgent intervention by the Syrian authorities to halt such abuse and to hold accountable those found to be responsible.
Immediately prior to his assault, Dr. al-Labwani, Mr. al-Bunni, and two other political prisoners reportedly had undertaken a week-long hunger strike, which ended on November 14, 2006, to protest human rights violations in Syria, including political imprisonment, torture, subversion of the judiciary, and the stifling of freedom of speech and opinion. Dr. al-Labwani also reportedly wrote an open letter from prison in which he defended himself, questioned authoritarian rule in Syria, and called for democratic reforms.
According to Amnesty International, a third incident occurred in late January 2007. Prison guards reportedly forcibly shaved the heads of Dr. al-Labwani and Mr. al-Bunni after criminal inmates held in the same section of ‘Adra prison with them protested over not having benefited from an amnesty. The guards also reportedly temporarily transferred Dr. al-Labwani into a filthy, rat-and-insect-infested cell, where he was made to sleep on the floor.
On March 19, 2007, the day that Dr. al-Labwani was to present his defense, officials reportedly took away his notes before they escorted him into the court. Dr. al-Labwani apparently had anticipated this eventuality, and, when it came time for him to give his testimony, he reportedly removed a second set of his notes from his underwear and used them to address the judge. Press accounts indicate that the judge expelled the public, journalists, and diplomats from the courtroom before Dr. al-Labwani gave his self-defense statement and that only his family was allowed to stay. Two days later, he reportedly was placed in solitary confinement in an underground cell, where he remained until April 5, 2007. Family members who visited him during this period reported that he looked “very tired and yellow,” was suffering from skin rashes, and had lost about ten kilograms.
On May 10, 2007, the judge in the Damascus criminal court rendered a guilty verdict on all charges. He sentenced Dr. al-Labwani to a 12-year prison term. BBC News reported that “Dr. al-Labwani looked shocked for a few seconds as the judge pronounced the verdict, then gave a faint smile and raised his fist in the air, without speaking.”
Additional charges while in prison
Since his initial trial and while he has been in prison serving his original 12-year sentence, two additional sets of charges were brought against Dr. al-Labwani in military court. The first set of charges was filed against him in late 2007 under Article 286 of Syria’s Penal Code for insulting President al-Assad and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” These charges appear to have been brought in retaliation for Dr. al-Labwani’s actions of March 19, 2007, described above. The prosecution called several common criminals who are inmates at ’Adra prison as witnesses. They claimed to have overheard derogatory statements made by Dr. al-Labwani after his return from court on March 19, 2007. According to reliable sources, inconsistent and factually incorrect statements made by these prosecution witnesses in response to questions from the defense were not recorded by the court. On April 23, 2008, the First Criminal Military Court in Damascus found Dr. al-Labwani guilty and sentenced him to an additional three years’ imprisonment.
A second set of charges reportedly was brought against Dr. al-Labwani in military court in June 2008. Information about these charges is sketchy. They apparently stem from a conversation Dr. al-Labwani allegedly had in prison about a conference on “Promoting Human Rights and Political Freedoms in Syria: The Way Forward,” that was held on April 1, 2008, in the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. The CHR was unsuccessful in its efforts to confirm the precise charges that were leveled and the status of any legal proceedings on them.
During his imprisonment, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the CHR, and numerous international human rights groups called for Dr. al-Labwani’s exoneration and unconditional release on the grounds that he was incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental rights to freedom of expression and assembly. During George Bush’s presidency, the White House issued two statements calling for the Syrian regime to immediately release Dr. al-Labwani and other prisoners of conscience. On September 17, 2009, the European Parliament passed a joint resolution calling on Syrian authorities to immediately release Dr. al-Labwani and other prisoners of conscience.
Conditions of confinement
Dr. al-Labwani was held in Cell No. 2 in ’Adra prison with 50 to 70 men, many of whom had been convicted of murder and robbery. Dr. al-Labwani was permitted weekly visits with family members that were approximately 30 minutes in duration. During these visits, his family was separated from him by two metal grilles, and at least two prison guards were present to monitor their conversations.
Early release from prison
On November 15, 2011, Dr. al-Labwani was granted early release from prison after Syrian authorities took two actions. First, President al-Assad issued orders that Dr. al-Labwani’s original 12-year sentence be cut in half. Second, a judge overturned the additional 3-year prison term that had been imposed while Dr. al-Labwani was in prison serving his 12-year sentence.
Following his release from prison, Dr. al-Labwani expressed his gratitude to all who had supported him and indicated his desire to have some peaceful time with his family.