The United States on Thursday sharply criticized Syria's imprisonment of human rights lawyer and activist Muhannad al-Hassani on sedition charges. But the State Department said efforts at outreach to the Damascus government will continue.

The State Department has joined human rights groups in condemning the Syrian action against Hassani, who was given a three-year prison term by a Damascus court on Wednesday on charges of spreading false information and undermining national morale.

The 44-year-old Hassani, who is president of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights, has defended pro-democracy activists and campaigned for the repeal of laws used to jail them.

He had been detained since July of last year, after having been repeatedly summoned for questioning by the Syrian security services.

State Department Acting Spokesman Mark Toner said the action against Hassani is only the latest example of the Damascus government's lack of tolerance for dissent.

"We regard the sentencing of Syrian lawyer Muhannad al-Hassani to three years in prison as an example of Syria's failure to comply with minimum international human rights standards.  Convicting Hassani on charges of 'spreading false information and undermining national morale and the dignity of the state' sends a clear message to the world that Syria will not tolerate freedom of expression," he said.

Toner called on Syria to meet its responsibilities under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  He said it should show its commitment to international legal norms by releasing Hassani and other jailed dissidents, including lawyer Hatem el-Mali and writer Ali Abdullah.

Toner said all have been jailed solely for seeking to exercise internationally-recognized political freedoms.

In May, Hassani was named the 2010 winner of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, which is named after the first head of Amnesty International.

The London-based rights group condemned Hassani's sentencing, calling him a prisoner of conscience who has done nothing more than to stand up for the rights of Syrians, and expose unfair trials and other abuses.

The Syrian Human Rights League expressed grave concern about the Hassani case, saying none of the minimum conditions for a fair trial was met.

The Obama administration has sent senior officials, including Undersecretary of State William Burns, to Damascus in recent months to open dialogue and to try to get the Syrian government to moderate its policies.

Asked whether the Hassani imprisonment is a setback to U.S. efforts at dialogue with the Syrian government, spokesman Toner said the U.S. policy of "principled engagement" with Damascus has not changed.

He said the Obama administration will continue to have a very frank exchange of views with the Syrian government, and that its criticism of the Hassani case is in keeping with that.

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