November 17, 2010

Bashar al-Assad
Presidential Palace
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 3410
Minister of Interior
Major Sa’id Mohamed Samour
Ministry of Interior
‘Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 222 3428

Your Excellencies,

On behalf of the 3,500 members of PEN American Center, an international organization of writers dedicated to protecting freedom of expression wherever it is threatened, we are writing to express our serious concern for the safety and well-being of imprisoned lawyer and writer Muhannad al-Hassani.

According to our information, al-Hassani, co-founder of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Sawasiyah), was attacked and severely beaten in Adra Prison in Damascus on October 28, 2010, by a convicted criminal. The attack took place just days after al-Hassani received the Dean Award of the Amsterdam Bar Association and the Martin Ennals Award for 2010. The prisoner who attacked al-Hassani was reportedly moved into the same cell shortly before the attack and used a heavy metal ring as a weapon in the beating, although prisoners are normally not permitted to wear such jewelry. Al-Hassani required ten stitches for a serious head injury, and there are fears that prison authorities may have been complicit in the attack.

Following the incident, the police took statements from other prisoners who had witnessed the assault and interviewed al-Hassani in the presence of his attacker. The case was referred to a court in Douma; however, al-Hassani’s lawyers were not informed and were therefore not present at the hearing. No further actions have been taken to investigate the attack or bring the perpetrator to justice, and al-Hassani has since been moved into solitary confinement.

Al-Hassani was arrested on July 28, 2009, and sentenced to three years in prison on June 23, 2010. He was charged under Articles 285, 286, and 287 of the Syrian Criminal Code with “weakening national sentiments” and “spreading false information that could debilitate the morale of the nation” for publishing information about unfair trials and torture in Syria and meeting with foreign embassy officials to discuss human rights. On October 29, 2010, the day after al-Hassani was attacked, the Penal Chamber at the Court of Cassation rejected his defense appeal, confirming the three-year sentence.

PEN American Center is gravely concerned for the safety and well-being of Muhannad al-Hassani in prison, and we call on prison authorities to provide him with adequate protection immediately, and for the Syrian government to thoroughly investigate the attack against him. We believe al-Hassani is being punished solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a signatory, and we therefore call for his immediate and unconditional release.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this critical matter.

Hannah Pakula                      
Chair, Freedom to Write Committee                 
Larry Siems
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs

CC: Minister of Foreign Affairs
His Excellency Walid al-Mua’llim
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Abu Rummaneh
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 7620

H.E. Imad Moustapha, Ph.D.
Syrian Ambassador to the United States
Embassy of Syria to the United States
2215 Wyoming Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Fax: (202) 265-4585

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