Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, April 24th, 2007
DAMASCUS — Syrian human rights activist Anwar Bunni was Tuesday sentenced to five years in prison on charges of "spreading false information," his lawyer said.
Khalil Maatuk said his client was sentenced in a Damascus criminal court.
Bunni, himself a lawyer, was arrested in the Syrian capital in May 2006 after signing an appeal for radical reform in relations between Syria and neighboring Lebanon.
Syria's state prosecutor said in February that Bunni would be prosecuted for spreading false information.
Bunni was the director of a legal rights center in Syria, financed partly by the European Union and established by a Belgian non-governmental organization. The center was closed down after his arrest.
In a statement to the court in January, Bunni said he was being judged for his opinions and had in no way violated the Syrian constitution or the law.
The "Beirut-Damascus Declaration" published in the Lebanese capital in May 2006 was signed by nearly 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals.
In a crackdown that followed in Syria, Bunni was arrested along with nine others, including journalist and writer Michel Kilo and communist activist Mahmoud Issa.
The best interview with Bunni remains Joe Pace's, published on Syria Comment in Aug 2005. Bunni lays out in detail his views on the Syrian opposition, the Kurdish issue, US foreign policy and how Syrians should work to change the situation in their country.
Anwar al-Bunni: Interview with Syria's leading … Here is a small quote from the long interview:
Pace: But there are people who are unwilling as a matter of principle to accept an American victory. How do you convince them that American pressure is in their interest?
Bunni: Those people are one element of many. There is no entity that wants to see an end to American interference more than the Syrian regime itself. But like I said, we need to exploit American pressure, not for the sake of American interests, but for the sake of achieving our own goals. And this is what the current opposition doesn’t understand. It doesn’t understand how to play the game. Even regards to people like Farid Ghadry—we have an expression in Syria: “better the dog bark with you than at you.” Let Farid bark with you. Don’t degrade him.
The opposition has no conception of how it is going to bring about these grand political changes. This is why I say they will collapse with the regime. They have no program; they have no role outside of opposing the regime’s existence. Who are they going to oppose after the regime’s collapse?
The regime’s political strategy depends on planting landmines throughout society. But the mine doesn’t explode if you place your leg on it—it explodes when you remove your leg from it. The regime planted the land mines then placed their legs on them so that if the regime goes, the society will explode. We can expect the same thing that happened in Lebanon to happen here. We suffer from the same problems of competing nationalisms, sectarianism, and extremism. So we are held hostage by a regime that says to us “if I leave, the world will end. You’ll suffer through civil war. Best leave me in place.”
We need to mobilize the people to build a new society and minimize the potential for this explosion. But nothing is free. No country can progress without paying a price, be it blood or civil war. Even America had to undergo civil war before it could become a great power—hundreds of people had to die. Europe had to suffer through the Second World War to become what it is today. Big changes require big prices. But we need to work to minimize the price we will have to pay for progress.
This is the role for foreign pressures—to enable people to mobilize and build a new society that will not explode as soon as the totalitarian boot is lifted. To allow people to build a society that will neutralize that landmine.
Addendum: Hassan Fatah and Hugh Naylor of the NYTimes write:
Bunni's attorneys and many analysts said, the verdict appeared to be a stark warning to the Syrian opposition.
"It was a message to the entire opposition movement: Pursue democracy, get punished," said Razan Zaitounah, an attorney on Bunni's defense team.
Witnesses said the courtroom was hushed as the judge read the verdict Tuesday morning, then erupted in shock at the harshness of the sentence.
"It's not a matter of what Anwar did; the regime is trying to send a message to the opposition movement, and that is: 'Shut up!,' " said Yassin Hajj Salih, a columnist and analyst linked to the opposition who attended the court session Tuesday. "The regime wants activists to be afraid, to be careful of what they do."