Trial of top Syrian political prisoner begins

Filed on February 20, 2010

DAMASCUS - A top political prisoner on Thursday challenged Syrian authorities’ right to try him for “weakening national morale”, the same charge he has spent his professional life as a lawyer campaigning against.

The trial of Mohannad al-Hassani, who has defended leading Syrian opposition figures, began behind closed doors on Thursday in a small office at the Palace of Justice opposite the towering walls of Old Damascus.

He was arrested in July last year.

Diplomats from several Western countries waited outside the door. France, whose prime minister was due to visit Syria on Friday to sign economic deals, was absent. “Generalities do not indict. You cannot say that I made statements bad for Syria. Specify the statements and how they... weakened national morale,” Hassani told the judge, according to a transcript of the session released by his lawyers.

The judge said Hassani, who also heads an organisation defending human rights, had attended trials at state security courts without being the lawyer representing the defendants and had been seen taking notes.

“I did not sneak in. It is my job as a lawyer and as a human rights monitor to attend. Transparency is a main requisite of any justice system,” Hassani replied.

The pro-government Damascus Bar disbarred the soft-spoken lawyer in November for creating an organisation to defend human rights without its approval and for attending trials without permission.

Syria’s ruling Baath Party took power in 1963, banned opposition and imposed emergency law which remains in force.

International support

International human rights organisations, lawyers unions, and the European Parliament condemned Hassani’s arrest.

“The defence of human rights requires no authorisation under any circumstances. A justice that does not accept to be seen when it sits cannot consider itself to embody justice,” said Christian Bournazel, head of the Paris Bar.

Hassani, 44, has long argued that weakening national morale was a “medieval” charge invented by Syria’s first military ruler, Hosni al-Zaim, in 1949, and had no place in a state operating in the 21st century.

Syrian authorities do not comment on specific political cases. But President Bashar al-Assad said repeatedly that the political prisoners have violated the constitution and were being treated according to the rule of law.

Syria’s constitution underwent a major change in the 1970s, during the rule of Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad, when a clause was added that designated the Baath Party as “leader of the state and society”. After the trial’s session, Hassani was allowed several minutes with his family and friends before being sent back to Adra prison north of the Syrian capital. The second session of his trial is expected to be set next week.

He is being held in a ward with 70 prisoners convicted of rape and sexual crimes. Unlike the other prisoners, he is not allowed a mattress to sleep on, exercise or access to the prison’s library and activities, his family said.

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