Summary and Current Status
On March 8, 2011, 80-year-old veteran Syrian human rights lawyer Haytham al-Maleh was released from ’Adra Prison. Mr. al-Maleh’s release occurred a day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a blanket amnesty for prisoners who are more than 70 years old and who suffer from incurable diseases. Despite his diabetes, rheumatism, and overactive thyroid condition, Mr. al-Maleh was denied essential medical treatment during his 16-month imprisonment.
Mr. al-Maleh has worked for more than 20 years, at great personal risk, to defend the rights of political prisoners in Syria, including cases undertaken by the CHR and the H.R. Network. Arrested on October 14, 2009, by Syrian State Security, he subsequently was charged with “weakening national sentiment” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” On July 4, 2010, after court proceedings that failed to meet international fair trial standards, he was convicted and sentenced to a three-year prison term. Amnesty International (AI) considered him to be a “prisoner of conscience.”
Until his retirement, Mr. al-Maleh was one of a small group of lawyers in Syria willing to serve as legal counsel for political detainees and challenge their harsh conditions of confinement. He reportedly has worked with Amnesty International (AI) since 1989.
Mr. al-Maleh is the former head of the Human Rights Association of Syria (HRAS), which was established in 2001 by some 40 human rights defenders and lawyers in the country. (When the HRAS sought to register in Syria as a legal organization, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor denied its application without giving any reason. Although an appeal of the ministry’s decision was filed by the HRAS on July 28, 2002, before the Administrative Tribunal (Majlis al-Dawla), a ruling is still pending.) In 2006, Mr. al-Maleh was awarded the Dutch Geuzen Medal for his courageous work in defense of human rights. He is also the 2010 recipient of the Alkarama Award for Human Rights Defenders, which honors a person who has contributed significantly to the protection and promotion of human rights in the Arab World.
In late July 2009, after Syrian State Security officials arrested two human rights lawyers, Mr. al-Maleh came out of retirement to defend them. The case of one of these lawyers, Muhannad al-Hassani, has been adopted by the H.R. Network.
In September and again on October 12, 2009, Mr. al-Maleh was interviewed by Baradda TV, a London-based satellite channel critical of the Syrian government. In the October interview, he said that the Syrian authorities “have at their disposal huge resources in the form of the army, intelligence, police and arms and all means of oppression yet they hide behind laws which have no logical or legal or just basis.” He also said that Syrian security forces “commit crimes with impunity.”
On October 13, 2009, an officer from Political Security telephoned Mr. al-Maleh and told him to report to the Political Security’s branch in Damascus. Mr. al-Maleh refused. On October 14, 2009, he was arrested at his office by Syrian authorities and taken to an undisclosed location. For five days, Syrian authorities did not acknowledge having Mr. al-Maleh in custody. It was later learned that, during this period, he was held incommunicado in a State Security detention center in the Kafr Sousa area of Damascus. On October 19, 2009, he was moved to a branch of the Military Police in Qaboun, a district of Damascus. The next day, despite being a civilian who holds no military status, Mr. al-Maleh was brought before the Military General Prosecutor, who read out the charges against him—
“weakening national sentiment” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.” AI believes these charges were brought against him simply because he exercised his right to freedom of expression. The charges stemmed from his public criticism of human rights violations and official corruption in Syria in Baradda TV interviews and in articles and reports he had written over a three-year period immediately prior to his arrest. Shortly after his arrest, AI declared Mr. al-Maleh to be a prisoner of conscience, expressed concern that he was at risk of torture or other ill-treatment, and called for the charges against him to be dropped and for his immediate release.
On November 3, 2009, Mr. al-Maleh was brought before a military judge who ordered that he stand trial on the charges leveled by the prosecutor. Following his indictment, the Syrian authorities transferred Mr. al-Maleh to ’Adra Prison in Damascus. Despite his advanced age and serious ill-health, Mr. al-Maleh was subjected to harsh conditions of confinement. He reportedly was held in a small cell with about 60 other prisoners and slept on a mattress on the floor near a bathroom.
Mr. al-Maleh suffers from diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland, conditions that require regular medication, a special diet, and medical supervision. In a BBC radio interview, Mr. al-Maleh’s son said after his father was detained, he went without his medication until he was seen by a prison doctor. Individuals suffering from diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland who do not take medication are at risk of severe weight loss, falling into a coma, and heart and kidney failure. According to AI, Mr. al-Maleh again stopped taking the medication that he needed on February 11, 2010, when prison authorities declared that he and other detainees in ‘Adra Prison could not obtain medication from anywhere but the prison pharmacy. Because Mr. al-Maleh believed that the prison pharmacy’s medicine is of poor quality, he would only take medication provided by his family and they were permitted to make only infrequent deliveries. According to AI, Mr. al-Maleh passed out in late February 2010 because he had not taken his medication, and he began to suffer from rheumatism, in addition to the diabetes and thyroid ailment he had when he entered prison.
On February 22, 2010, Mr. al-Maleh was brought before a military judge in Damascus for a second time to face new charges of “insulting the president” and “slandering a governmental body.” These charges stemmed from accusations made by another inmate in ’Adra Prison, detained for a non-political offense, who reported Mr. al-Maleh had made critical statements against the government in his presence. At the hearing, Mr. al-Maleh reportedly characterized the claims made by the prisoner as “lies and acts of provocation.”
Although the hearing was “public,” diplomats and two Italian lawyers representing the International Federation for Human Rights, who had come to observe, were not permitted to enter the court room. Mr. al-Maleh’s wife, who was in attendance, was not permitted to shake his hand or talk to him. When Mr. al-Maleh and his wife embraced as he was being led away, security officers reportedly dragged him away from her.
The day after the hearing, the new charges were dropped under a presidential amnesty for prisoners convicted of minor offenses, but Mr. al-Maleh still stood trial on the charges that had been brought against him on November 3, 2009. Because prison authorities reportedly denied Mr. al-Maleh private legal counsel, he acted as his own defense lawyer during a lengthy trial that was marked by irregularities. Although his trial began on April 8, 2010, Mr. al-Maleh reportedly was denied access to his official case file and prevented from presenting his testimony until the penultimate court hearing on June 15, 2010. On July 4, 2010, the Second Military Court in Damascus rendered a guilty verdict and sentenced him to a three-year prison term.
On October 19, 2010, the Court of Appeals in Damascus upheld Mr. al-Maleh’s conviction and prison sentence.
The governments of Canada, France, the Netherlands, the United States, and many other countries and non-governmental organizations around the globe expressed concern about Mr. al-Maleh’s imprisonment and called for his immediate and unconditional release. On September 9, 2010, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that expressed “its deepest concern about the situation of Mr. Haythan Al-Maleh” and called on the Syrian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release him, and to guarantee his physical and psychological well-being under all circumstances.”
In early November 2010, after authorities in ’Adra Prison transferred his former client, Mr. al-Hassani, to a tiny underground isolation cell, despite his already serious ill-health, Mr. al-Maleh joined other political prisoners in a hunger strike to protest his solitary confinement. The hunger strike was suspended three days later, after Mr. al-Hassani was returned to a cell with the general prison population.
On March 8, 2011, Mr. al-Maleh was released from ’Adra Prison after being granted a presidential pardon because of his advanced age and serious ill-health. Immediately upon his release from prison, Mr. al-Maleh gave several interviews to media outlets and reportedly told Amnesty International: I hope to keep to my promise I made to those who have supported me, by continuing my work. I call on the government to release all the prisoners of conscience in ’Adra Prison and the thousands of others like them detained in security facilities.
There is a clear pattern of actions by Syrian authorities to sanction Mr. al-Maleh for his legitimate human rights work. From 1980 until 1987, he was imprisoned, without being charged or tried, for his work with the Freedom and Human Rights Committee of the Syrian Lawyers’ Union. In 2002, he was brought before a military tribunal for publishing a magazine. In 2003, his lawyer’s license was revoked and shortly thereafter he was banned from traveling abroad. His latest imprisonment lasted more than 16 months.