23 July 2015 – The release from prison after more than three years of Hani Al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir, human rights defenders and members of the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression (SCM), is a small step towards improving Syria’s freedom of expression situation, which remains one of the worst in the world, PEN International and English PEN said today. The global writers’ organisation also reiterated its call for the release of Mazen Darwish, the founding president of (SCM), who continues to be arbitrarily detained on the basis of his peaceful activities for greater freedom of expression.
On 16 February 2012, Syrian Air Force Intelligence raided the offices of SCM in Damascus and arrested all those present, including the three human rights defenders. All the detained SCM members were later released, some on bail, except the three men.
The three men were detained for over two years without trial, at times in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance. During this time they were reportedly subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
In February 2013, the three were finally taken before the Anti-Terrorism Court on charges of ‘publicising terrorist acts’. Since then, their hearings have been repeatedly been postponed, most recently on 22 July. The next hearing is now scheduled to take place on 31 August.
According to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), prior to this most recent hearing, a list of detainees to be granted amnesty which included Mazen Darwish was sent to Hama Prison Administration. However, instead of being released, the prison authorities carried out a further security check on Darwish: as a result he is due to be moved from Hama Prison to the State Security Department in Damascus. His family are awaiting further news.
Furthermore, despite their release, Gharir and Al-Zitani will continue to face further legal proceedings as the charges against them have not yet been dropped.
In October 2014, PEN Pinter Prize winner Salman Rushdie chose Mazen Darwish as the international writer of courage with whom he wished to share the prize, stating:
‘Mazen Darwish courageously fought for civilised values – free expression, human rights – in one of the most dangerous places in the world. His continued detention is arbitrary and unjust. He should be freed immediately, and we must hope this award may help, by shining a light on his plight.’
Since their arrest, PEN and dozens of other human rights organisation have called for the charges against the three men to be dropped and for their immediate and unconditional release. PEN believes that Hani Al-Zitani, Hussein Gharir and Mazen Darwish were and are held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression and calls for all charges to be dropped immediately and for Mazen Darwish to be released without further delay.
For more information see PEN’s recent action here.