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Syria: Civil Society Activists Barred From Traveling

(New York, July 12, 2006) – Syrian authorities have amplified their crackdown against civil society activists, arbitrarily restricting several of them from leaving the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

" These travel bans are a crude attempt to prevent Syrian civil society activists from interacting with the outside world. Shy of putting these activists in jail, the Syrian government is instead putting them under a type of national house arrest. "
Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division

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Those most recently denied the right to leave Syria include: Dr. Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies; Suheir Atassi, head of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum for Democratic Dialogue, which Syrian authorities shut down last year; Walid al-Bunni, a physician who helped found the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society; and Samar al-Labwani, the wife of jailed human rights activist Dr. Kamal al-Labwani.  
“These travel bans are a crude attempt to prevent Syrian civil society activists from interacting with the outside world,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Shy of putting these activists in jail, the Syrian government is instead putting them under a type of national house arrest.”  
Ziadeh was traveling from Damascus to Amman on June 26 when Syrian security forces at the border prevented him from leaving the country. They did not explain the reason for the travel ban but indicated that the General Intelligence Agency (al-Mukhabarat al-`Ama) had issued the order and that Ziadeh had to report to them. He was on his way to participate in an international conference on human rights and criminal justice organized by the Amman Centre for Human Rights Studies.  
Following the ban imposed on Ziadeh, three other civil society activists learned that the government also had issued orders banning them from traveling. Suheir Atassi was scheduled to leave Syria on July 2 for a 10-day visit to France after receiving a scholarship from the French government for her activities as a youth leader. The immigration authorities informed her that the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence had issued the order restricting her travel. The Palestine Branch houses a prison that the government uses to jail a number of political activists.  
The government had released Walid al-Bunni from jail in January 2006 after he served five years for his involvement in the “Damascus Spring” movement in 2001. The Damascus Spring was a period of intense political and social debate in Syria, which started after the death of President Hafez al-Asad in June 2000 and continued until the government suppressed these activities in the fall of 2001. For the first time since 1989, al-Bunni was able to obtain a passport, and was hoping to travel to Saudi Arabia to visit relatives and to Greece to attend a conference. He learned that it was the General Intelligence Agency (al-Mukhabarat al-`Ama) that had issued the order banning him from travel.  
Immigration authorities informed Samar Labwani at the Lebanese border that the General Intelligence Agency (al-Mukhabarat al-`Ama) had issued orders banning her from traveling. They did not inform her of the reasons for the ban. Syrian security agents have detained her husband, the activist Dr. Kamal al-Labwani, since November 8, 2005. Dr. Labwani has been charged, amongst other things, with contacting a foreign state with the intent of initiating aggression against Syria. His trial resumes on July 16.  
Under international law, everyone is free to leave his or her country. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a state party, bars states from restricting someone’s right to leave the country, except when the given restrictions are prescribed by law and are “necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others,” and are consistent with the other rights recognized in that treaty. Syrian security agents have issued travel bans in Syria without any explanation and without any judicial basis.  
“Once again, the Syrian government is doing everything it can to make life miserable for activists who dare to speak of reform,” said Stork.  
Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to lift the travel bans immediately and urged the international community and in particular the European Union, which maintains strong trading relations with Syria, to mobilize behind Syria’s civil society activists so that they can fully enjoy their civil and political rights.  
Syrian authorities routinely use travel bans as punishment for activists and dissidents. Such restrictions constitute a violation of the activists’ right to freedom of movement and an undue interference with their rights to freedom of expression and association.  
The U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, Hina Jilani, expressed concern in her March 2006 report about the lack of freedom of assembly and freedom of movement for defenders in Syria, in particular with respect to their participation in seminars and workshops on human rights issues abroad.  
Some of the many activists who continue to be subject to a travel ban include:  
  • Riad Seif, a former reformist member of Parliament and “Damascus Spring” activist, who was released from jail in January 2006 after serving five years for his activities in the “Damascus Spring” movement. Following his release, officials denied him a passport.  
  • Fawaz Tello, another “Damascus Spring” detainee whom authorities released in January 2006 after he served five years in jail. Following his release from jail, they allowed him to obtain a passport, but subsequently banned him from traveling.  
  • Lu'ay Hussain, a writer who was not allowed in June 2006 to cross into Lebanon, where he was scheduled to appear on a talk show on al-Hurra TV.  
  • Razan Zeitouneh, a human rights lawyer and coordinator of the Syrian Human Rights Information Link, who has been banned from leaving Syria since 2002.  
  • Haitham al-Maleh, a human rights defender who has been banned from leaving Syria since 2003.  
  • Hazim Nahar, a political activist involved in the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, who continues to be banned from travel.  
  • Faris Murad, an activist who spent 29 years in prison because he belongs to the Arab Communist Organization. Following his release in 2004, he continues to be banned from traveling  
  • Yasin al-Haj Salih, a doctor, journalist, human rights defender and former prisoner, who was denied a passport in 2005.  

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