"Muhammad Nazir Sakka was released yesterday," Bunni told AFP on Sunday, adding that the ex-general had been due for release in late January with 122 other political prisoners. 

Sakka - who stood accused of plotting with other army officers to overthrow the government of then president Hafiz al-Asad - had been held at the Tadmur prison in Palmyra in Syria's eastern desert.

The failed coup occurred In the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran when Muslim groups prompted a series of popular uprisings and riots in the towns of Aleppo, Homs and Hama and one Muslim Brotherhood member tried to assassinate then president Hafiz al-Asad.

Most of the prisoners released last month were Islamists or
Baathists loyal to the ousted Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, were in ill health or had completed their sentences. 

Bunni lashed out at what he called "illegal and unjust" trials in which political prisoners are convicted, adding: "These releases come in driblets ... to allow the authorities to improve their image when it is deemed necessary." 

Political reforms

More than 1000 Syrian intellectuals have signed a petition
urging the government of President Bashar al-Asad to introduce political reforms, lift a state of emergency in place since 1963 and release all political prisoners. 

The intellectuals say the state of emergency has "led to the
paralysis of society and to the imprisonment of thousands of
citizens for political reasons." 

More than 700 political prisoners have been freed during two
presidential amnesties declared by al-Asad on the anniversaries of his coming to power in June 2000.