Summary and Current Status
On June 2, 2011, Syrian human rights lawyer Muhannad al-Hassani was released from ’Adra Prison. His release occurred two days after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad granted a general amnesty to “detainees belonging to political movements.”
Mr. al-Hassani has worked for many years, at great personal risk, to defend the rights of political prisoners in Syria, including several whose cases were undertaken by the CHR and the H.R. Network. Arrested on July 28, 2009, by Syrian State Security, he was subsequently charged with “weakening national sentiments” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” On June 23, 2010, after court proceedings that failed to meet international fair trial standards, Mr. al-Hassani was convicted of these charges and sentenced to a three-year prison term. Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists considered him to be a “prisoner of conscience."
During his incarceration, Mr. al-Hassani undertook two hunger strikes with other political prisoners in ’Adra Prison. The first, in October 2010, protested his transfer to solitary confinement and lasted three days. The second, in March 2011, demanded the end of political trials and detentions and called for democratic reforms in Syria. It lasted about three weeks.
During his imprisonment, the Damascus section of the Syrian Bar Association disbarred Mr. al-Hassani and banned him from practicing as a lawyer for the rest of his life. (Syrian law obligates the bar association to support the government and its goals.)
Muhannad al-Hassani is a prominent Syrian human rights lawyer and defender. He chairs the Board of Directors of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights (Sawasiyah), which monitors and publicizes human rights violations committed by the Syrian authorities. In this capacity, Mr. al-Hassani routinely attended sessions of Syria’s State Supreme Security Court (SSSC) and published a weekly report on the operations of this special court. Created under the country’s “state of emergency” laws which were in force from 1964 until May 2011, the SSSC operated independently of Syria’s criminal justice system. Amnesty International (AI) reported on the SSSC’s lack of independence and impartiality, stating “trials before the SSSC breach international fair trial standards and fail to meet the requirements of Syria’s own laws or conform with practices in Syria’s ordinary courts.” Defendants’ lawyers reportedly were not free to meet with their detained clients without written permission from the president of the SSSC, which was often withheld. According to Human Rights Watch, lawyers of defendants tried by the SSSC were not guaranteed access to clients prior to trial, trial proceedings began before lawyers had an opportunity to see the case files, and the court often denied lawyers the opportunity to engage in oral arguments on behalf of their clients. Furthermore, SSSC judgments were not subject to appeal before a higher authority, constituting a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Syria has ratified.
A member of the Syrian Bar Association from 1994 until his disbarment (described below), Mr. al-Hassani is internationally recognized for his work as a human rights lawyer. He has served as a commissioner of the prestigious International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). The ICJ is comprised of up to 60 lawyers, including senior judges, attorneys, and academics from different legal systems around the globe, who are dedicated to ensuring respect for international human rights standards through the law. Mr. al-Hassani and the other commissioners were elected to the ICJ by their peers internationally for a five-year term based on their experience, knowledge, and fundamental commitment to human rights.
Throughout his professional life, Mr. al-Hassani has been one of a small group of lawyers in Syria who have been willing to serve as legal counsel for political detainees and challenge their harsh conditions of confinement. Over the years, he has served as the lawyer for a number of Syrian professional colleagues whose cases have been adopted by the CHR. Several individual participants in the H.R. Network also have been involved in private efforts to secure the release through UNESCO of Syrian professional colleagues defended by Mr. al-Hassani.
Questioning and arrest
On July 19, 2009, a clerk, acting on orders from the chief prosecutor, seized and destroyed notes that Mr. al-Hassani had taken while observing a trial before the SSSC. The following day, after receiving a phone call from Syrian intelligence officials, Mr. al-Hassani reported to their offices, as instructed, for questioning. Subsequent to this session and several others on July 26 and 27, at which the questioning reportedly centered on his human rights work with Sawasiyah and his defense of political prisoners, Mr. al-Hassani was arrested by Syrian State Security officials on July 28, 2009. Shortly after his arrest, AI declared Mr. al-Hassani to be a prisoner of conscience, expressed concern that he faced imprisonment because of his legitimate human rights work, and called for the charges against him to be dropped and for him to be released immediately and unconditionally.
Mr. al-Hassani initially was detained for three days in the State Security detention center in the Mafar Sussa region. He was then indicted and transferred to ’Adra Prison in Damascus, where he remained for the duration of his imprisonment. In a closed court session before Damascus’ First Prosecutor, from which his lawyer was barred, Mr. al-Hassani was charged under Articles 285, 286, and 287 of Syria’s Penal Code with “weakening national sentiments and encouraging racist and sectarian feelings” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” The charges stemmed from his publication on the Internet of a report about an open trial before the SSSC.
On September 17, 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that “expresse[d] its deepest concern about Mr. al-Hassani’s detention, which seems to aim at sanctioning his human rights activities” and “call[ed] on the Syrian authorities to release Mr. Muhannad al-Hassani immediately and to guarantee in all circumstances his physical and psychological integrity.” Similar appeals were made by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, the ICJ, and numerous other international human rights and legal groups.
Imprisonment of his legal counsel
On October 14, 2009, Mr. al-Hassani’s lawyer, Haytham al-Maleh—a veteran human rights lawyer who came out of retirement to represent him—was arrested as well. Like his client, Mr. al-Maleh, who was 79 years old at the time of his arrest, was convicted of “weakening national sentiment” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country” and sentenced to a three-year prison term on July 4, 2010. AI considered him to be a “prisoner of conscience.” On March 8, 2011, Mr. al-Maleh was released from ’Adra Prison after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a blanket amnesty for all prisoners who were more than 70 years old.
Clearly, Mr. al-Maleh’s incarceration made it impossible for him to continue his defense of Mr. al-Hassani, including his efforts to access essential documents related to State Security investigations that reportedly were in Mr. al-Hassani’s case file. This situation hampered Mr. al-Hassani’s preparation of an adequate defense because he had to rely on less experienced human rights lawyers for legal assistance.
On November 10, 2009, the Disciplinary Board of the Damascus section of the Syrian Bar Association, which lacks independence from the government, permanently banned Mr. al-Hassani from practicing as a lawyer. The following five factors—all of which relate to his peaceful activities as a human rights defender—were cited by the association’s Disciplinary Board as grounds for its decision to disbar Mr. al-Hassani:
- “Being the president of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights, which has been established without an official license and without obtaining the Bar Association’s approval”;
- “Having the organization carry out its activities in a way that is harmful to Syria”;
- “Publishing false and exaggerated information that weakens the state and its reputation abroad”;
- “Attending and documenting the proceedings of the State Supreme Security Court without being the lawyer of those involved in these proceedings”; and, consequently,
- “Violating the law governing this professional as well as the [Bar Association’s] internal rules, and harming the dignity, honor and traditions of this profession.”
Prominent leaders in the international human rights community have expressed concern about the similarity between the grounds that the Syrian Bar Association cited in disbarring Mr. al-Hassani and the criminal charges brought against him. The Arab Center for Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (a non-governmental organization located in Cairo) also expressed “doubts about the impartiality and independence of the Syrian Bar Association and the members of the Disciplinary Board.”
Following Mr. al-Hassani’s disbarment, ICJ Secretary General Wilder Tayler stated: “The disciplinary trial of al-Hassani before the Damascus section of the Bar Association plainly failed to meet international standards of due process. During the proceedings, the disciplinary Committee gave no credible evidence that Al-Hassani had published any false or exaggerated information of any kind. … Muhannad Al-Hassani has performed his legal functions in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics. Disbarring him for a lifetime period for carrying out these functions is a strong message to all human rights lawyers and defenders in Syria.”
Trial, conviction, and sentence
On February 18, 2010, Mr. al-Hassani’s trial began before the Second Criminal Court of Damascus. The court proceedings failed to meet international fair trial standards, including the right to be presumed innocent and the right to defense. According to Mr. Tayler of the ICJ, “The President of the Court denied all defense witnesses from giving evidence and did not require the prosecution to present any kind of credible evidence to support the accusations made against Mr. Al-Hassani.”
On June 23, 2010, the court rendered a guilty verdict and sentenced Mr. al-Hassani to a three-year prison term. A British Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement issued following his conviction reads in part: “The UK deeply regrets this sentence and urges the Syrian government to overturn the decision and release Al-Hassani. We remain seriously concerned about the human rights situation in Syrian and call on the Syrian government to fulfill all of its human rights obligations, and allow its citizens to practice the right to freedom of expression without fear of arbitrary arrest, intimidation, and imprisonment.” AI called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to intervene and order Mr. al-Hassani’s immediate and unconditional release.
The Criminal Court’s verdict is final and can only be reviewed before the Cassation Court on procedural grounds. On October 25, 2010, the deputy president of the Cassation Court rejected the appeal that Mr. al-Hassani’s lawyer had submitted on his behalf three months earlier.
Conditions of confinement
During his imprisonment, Mr. al-Hassani was subjected to harsh conditions of confinement at ’Adra Prison. During most of his incarceration, he was held in an overcrowded cell with approximately 60 inmates who have been convicted of serious crimes. His 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.”
On October 28, 2010, Mr. al-Hassani reportedly was beaten and verbally abused by Mohammad Hamadi, an inmate serving time for rape and armed robbery who had only recently been moved into Mr. al-Hassani’s cell. Although prisoners normally are not permitted to wear jewelry, Mr. Hamadi reportedly beat Mr. al-Hassani while wearing a heavy metal finger ring at the time of the assault. Credible reports indicate that Mr. al-Hassani sustained a cut on his forehead, that required 10 stitches, and severe swelling of his right eye and cheek. It appears that the assault may have been at the behest of Syrian authorities and retaliatory in nature. While Mr. Hamadi was attacking Mr. al-Hassani, Mr. Hamadi reportedly accused him of being “anti-nationalist, a traitor, and an agent.” Additionally, the attack occurred two weeks after Mr. al-Hassani received two prestigious international awards—the Dean Award of the Amsterdam Bar Association and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, which is awarded jointly by 10 of the world’s largest human rights organizations.
According to a joint statement issued on November 4, 2010, by AI, ICJ, and six other international human rights organizations, following the incident, the police took statements from other prisoners who had witnessed the assault, and they interviewed Mr. al-Hassani in the presence of Mr. Hamadi. During the interview, Mr. Hamadi reportedly continued to threaten Mr. al-Hassani and accuse him of being unpatriotic. Subsequently, Syrian authorities took Mr. al-Hassani to the coroner’s office to have his injuries examined by a government doctor and returned him to the same cell as his attacker. Five days later, on November 2, 2010, the authorities transferred Mr. al-Hassani to a tiny underground isolation cell. To protest his solitary confinement, he and other political prisoners in ’Adra Prison who supported him undertook a hunger strike. Three days later, after Mr. al-Hassani was returned to an overcrowded cell with the general prison population, the hunger strike was suspended, and Mr. Hamadi was moved to a different cell.
On March 7, 2011, Mr. al-Hassani was one of a dozen political prisoners who initiated an open ended hunger strike to demand the end of political trials and detentions and to call for democratic reforms in Syria. Although we do not know the exact date, the hunger strike was suspended sometime before March 27, 2011.
On June 2, 2011, Mr. al-Hassani was one of several hundred prisoners of conscience released from ’Adra Prison under a general presidential amnesty for “detainees belonging to political movements.”