The following is a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, led by the International Press Institute and signed by 24 IFEX members calling for the release of free expression advocate Mazen Darwish:
His Excellency Bashar al-Assad
Syrian Arab Republic
The International Press Institute (IPI) and the undersigned members of IFEX, the global network for free expression, hereby appeal to you for the release of Mazen Darwish, founding president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), and a tireless advocate of media freedom and journalists' rights in Syria.
It is our understanding that on 25 March 2015, the Anti-Terrorism Court in Damascus will render a verdict in Mr. Darwish's case.
The international attention that will be focused on Mr. Darwish's case on this date presents your government with an ideal opportunity to release him and, thereby, demonstrate to the international community a renewed commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights, including freedom of expression and the press.
As you know, Mr. Darwish has been held since February 2012, and was held without charges until March 2014. At that time, he was charged with “publicising terrorist acts” under Art. 8 of the 2012 Anti-Terrorism Law.
Unfortunately, Mr. Darwish did not benefit from the June 2014 amnesty announced by your government, despite the fact that the amnesty decree expressly applied to Art. 8 of the Anti-Terrorism Law.
We urge you now to ensure that the terms of the amnesty decree are fully and fairly upheld, in particular with respect to Mr. Darwish's case.
According to our information, the charges against Mr. Darwish relate to his work with the SCM. Under Mr. Darwish's direction, the SCM regularly reported on free speech violations and journalists' working conditions, collected and publicised the disappearances of bloggers and media figures, and advocated for legal reform.
International human rights standards require states to ensure that anti-terrorism legislation, in both text and practice, does not result in unjustifiable or disproportionate interference in freedom of expression. The special representatives on freedom of expression of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Organization of American States and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights have declared that “the criminalisation of speech relating to terrorism should be restricted to instances of intentional incitement to terrorism” and affirmed that the vital role of journalists in providing information to the public must be respected in laws against terrorism and extremism.
We also urge you to free two of Mr. Darwish's colleagues at SCM, Hussein Ghrer and Hani Zaitani, who have likewise been held since Feb. 2012. The terms of the amnesty decree should also be applied to two further SCM staff members, Mansour Omari and Abd al-Rahman Hamada.
Mazen Darwish is an internationally respected journalist and human rights defender. Last month, IPI named him as its 2015 World Press Freedom Hero. Your government would send an extraordinary signal by releasing Mr. Darwish and allowing him the opportunity to accept his much-deserved award in person on 28 March at IPI's World Congress in Myanmar, before an audience of leading publishers, editors, and journalists from around the globe.
Your excellency, please take this opportunity to free Mr. Darwish and his colleagues.
Thank you for your attention to this most important matter.
Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Albanian Media Institute
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
Bahrain Center for Human Rights
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Centre for Independent Journalism - Malaysia
Committee to Protect Journalists
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Foro de Periodismo Argentino
Foundation for Press Freedom - FLIP
Globe International Center
Index on Censorship
Initiative for Freedom of Expression - Turkey
International Federation of Journalists
Media Foundation for West Africa
Media Rights Agenda
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA