DAMASCUS // A jailed lawyer may be punished more harshly by Syrian courts after being awarded a prestigious international prize for human rights activism, civil society campaigners in Damascus have warned. Muhannad al Hassani, who was named on Friday as winner of the 2010 Martin Ennals award for defending human rights, is currently imprisoned facing charges of "weakening national sentiment" and "spreading false news", both of which carry potentially long sentences if he is convicted.
With the trial ongoing, Syrian-based human rights campaigners say the award, granted by a coalition of leading agencies, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, may dim Mr al Hassani's hopes for a fair trial and quick release. "Maybe this award will not be in Muhannad's favour when the time comes for judgment on his case," said Ammar Qurabi, of the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria.
"Before the award, we were talking about him having a three-year jail term if found guilty, but now we don't know. It might be even longer." The Syrian authorities jealously guard issues of national sovereignty and many of the political dissidents who have been arrested are suspected of being in league with foreign campaign groups. Activists who manage to work inside Syria's highly constrained political environment are fastidious when it comes to maintaining their independence from any hint of outside political influence.
Given that, human rights lobbyists here expressed mixed feelings about receiving international accolades, saying that while awards focused world attention on the issue of civil liberties in Syria, they could also add to the problems faced by those campaigning for greater freedoms. "If the award is seen as international pressure on Syria, it won't be useful for us and I believe that is probably the case," said Abdel Karim Rehawee, a founder of the Syrian Human Rights League, of which Mr al Hassani is a former member. "On the other hand, that the award was given to a Syrian - not to someone from another country with a bad human rights record - does put the spotlight on the situation here. That is important."
In addition to highlighting human rights conditions in Syria, as the Martin Ennals foundation surely intended, the decision to give the award to the 42-year-old lawyer has served to underline the weaknesses and divisions among Syrian activists, many of whom suspect their colleagues of being informants, undercover security agents or in the hands of foreign powers. Infighting between Syrian human groups is rife.
"He was chosen because of his contacts with international groups, not because he did much important work on the ground here," said one human rights campaigner on condition of anonymity. "They should have given the awards to one of the people who has really done something, like Haitham al Maleh or Anwar Bunni." Mr al Maleh, a 79-year-old former judge and lawyer, has been jailed since October and is now on trial before a Syrian military court. He was a member of Mr al Hassani's legal defence team at the time of his arrest.
Mr al Hassani was himself detained in July, ostensibly for publicising a case in which a prisoner was allegedly killed under torture by the security services. The prosecution against him contends the incident did not happen. One of Mr al Hassani's roles as a human rights activist was to monitor the state security court, a body that exists outside the ordinary criminal justice system and that is inaccessible to most lawyers and campaigners.
According to activists in Syria, he had informal access to the court and was allowed to take notes during sessions - the only lawyer allowed to do so - fuelling rumours inside the country's fragile human rights community that he was somehow in league with senior officials. Campaigners familiar with the legal case against him say Mr al Hassani has even called in a state security court officer as a defence witness, something no other human rights advocate would do.
Another characteristic of Syria's human rights community brought into sharp relief as a result of Mr al Hassani's trial is its lack of organisation. At his last court hearing, according to one campaigner with knowledge of the case, Mr al Hassani's defence team squabbled among itself in front of the judge and failed to present a coherent case to counter the charges brought against him. "We don't do ourselves any favours," said the activist. "Muhannad [al Hassani] has one defence lawyer who is now in jail [Haitham al Maleh], one has a broken leg and can't come to court, the other is not much of a lawyer at all. They can't agree on anything and then you have Muhannad trying to make his own case."
Syria, together with other Arab states, has come under heavy criticism for its human rights record. Campaigners say the situation has shown no signs of improvement despite a recent diplomatic rapprochement with the West. firstname.lastname@example.org