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US Criticizes Sentencing of Syrian Human Rights Activist


The United States has criticized the five-year prison term handed down against Syrian human-rights activist Anwar al-Bunni. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department al-Bunni was a signatory of a petition critical Syrian coercion against Lebanon.

The United States had spoken out on several occasions against the treatment of Anwar al-Bunni, who was prosecuted along with two other Syrian human-rights advocates after they signed a petition in May of 2006 protesting Syria's treatment of Lebanon.

A court in Damascus sentenced al-Bunni, who has already been detained for nearly a year, to five years in prison on charges of disseminating hostile information about Syria and belonging to an illegal political group.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the sentence reflects the poor human-rights record of the Syrian government:

"It is a sad commentary on the state of political freedom in Syria, where an individual who is talking about legitimate issues about the way Syria is ruled is put in jail summarily," he said. "It is a sad fact that it is entirely consistent with past Syrian behavior, and it is one of the reasons why we are going to continue to highlight the lack of political and other freedoms in Syria."

Al-Bunni, long an advocate of democratic reform in Syria, had been among about 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who signed a petition, the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, calling for Syria to recognize Lebanon as a fully independent country.

At the time of his arrest, the Syrian state media accused signatories of conspiring with the United States and other supporters of a U.N. Security Council resolution approved last May that called for Syria to normalize its relationship with Lebanon, which it had largely occupied for three decades.

Syrian rights activists Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa also face charges over the petition.

On Monday, the State Department criticized weekend parliamentary elections in Syria as another missed opportunity for that country to move toward democracy.

Syrians voted Sunday on a national legislative assembly, the Council of the People, that is elected every four years, but has little say over policy. Syria has been under emergency law for four decades and no opposition parties are allowed.

A U.S. statement said the Syrian government used intimidation to restrict the candidate pool for the election and threats of reprisal to discourage political dissent. The statement urged an end to such abusive practices.

Despite concerns about Syrian policy, including alleged support for Palestinian extremists, the United States maintains a limited political dialogue with the Damascus government, and has recently held talks with Syria on the problem of Iraqi refugees in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem and others plan to attend a conference on Iraq next week in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

U.S. officials do not rule out a separate meeting there between Rice and her Syrian counterpart.