DAMASCUS, Syria, (AP) – A Syrian criminal court on Wednesday convicted 12 dissidents of fomenting sectarian strife and sentenced them to two and a half years in prison, a local human rights group said.
Ammar Qurabi of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said the defendants are members of a pro-democracy group known as the Damascus Declaration and were arrested last December.
They were charged with spreading false information and belonging to a secret organization promoting sectarian strife.
The Damascus Declaration, formed in 2005, is the broadest coalition of opposition figures in Syria. Its signatories have said they want to build internal support for peaceful democratic change in Syria.
The activists were originally sentenced to six years, but the judge reduced the sentence without giving a reason. The session was attended by diplomats from Western and Arab countries, human rights activists and relatives of the defendants.
The dissidents, who pleaded not guilty, include the group’s leader, Fidaa Horani, and former parliamentarian Riyadh Seif.
Qurabi’s organization expressed “deep shock” with the verdicts and called for the immediate release of the defendants, saying they have exercised “their right of freedom of expression.”
On the eve of their trial, Amnesty International called on Syrian authorities to release the 12 activists and said they were victims of an unfair trial.
“Syria must put an end to its policy of silencing peaceful dissent and punishing people who dare to speak out,” Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said in a statement Tuesday.
Amnesty has been calling for an investigation into allegations of torture and other ill-treatment against some of the activists.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he released hundreds of political prisoners. But he soon clamped down on pro-democracy activists, suggesting there were limits to the level of opposition he was prepared to tolerate.