Gathering of nearly 200 critics of the Assad regime dismissed by some democracy activists as a “publicity stunt”.
|Opposition figures have gathered in Damascus to discuss ‘how to solve the crisis’ in Syria [AFP]|
Syria’s opposition has been repressed for decades, with activists serving long prison terms for criticising the government.
The country is essentially a one-party state, ruled by the Baath Party since 1963.
However, facing mass protests against his rule, President Bashar al-Assad has pledged to allow the formation of new political parties.
For the first time, about 200 opposition figures have been allowed to hold talks in Damascus on June 27 to discuss the country’s future.
Al Jazeera profiles some of the most prominent figures taking part in the meeting.
|Kilo wrote the draft of the Damascus Declaration [AFP]|
The writer and pro-democracy campaigner Michel Kilo is a veteran on the opposition scene.
He was born in the coastal city of Latakia in 1940 and studied journalism in Egypt and Germany. As a columnist he wrote opinion pieces for the Lebanese daily Annahar and the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
Kilo, a Christian, was first arrested in the early 1980s. He later moved to France but came back to Syria in 1991.
He wrote the draft of the 2005 Damascus Declaration, a statement of unity by opposition figures calling for political reform.
He was jailed in 2006 after signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, urging Syria to recognise Lebanon’s independence.
He was sentenced a year later to three years in prison on charges of “of weakening national sentiment and encouraging sectarian strife.” He was released in 2009.
Aref Dalila was one of four activists who met an adviser to Assad in April to discuss a national dialogue. After that meeting the group said no dialogue could be held while security forces continued to kill and arrest protesters.
|Dalila was sentenced to 10 years in prison for spreading false information [EPA]|
Born in Latakia, Dalila holds a doctorate in economics from Moscow University. He worked in Kuwait in the 1980s, and returned to Syria to serve as dean at Damascus University until he was banned from teaching in 1998, allegedly due to his criticism of the government’s economic policies.
He was arrested with at least nine other opposition activists during the Damascus Spring, a period of intense political and social debate in Syria which began after the death of President Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 and continued to some degree until autumn 2001, when most of the activities associated with it were suppressed by the government.
His arrest was allegedly prompted by a lecture in which he called for democracy and transparency, discussing the deterioration of his country’s economy and alleged corruption among economic policy advisers.
He was sentenced for 10 years for attempting to change the Syrian constitution, inciting armed rebellion and spreading false information.
He was adopted by Amnesty International as a “prisoner of conscience” and was released by a special presidential order in August 2008.
Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni has defended clients such as opposition figures Riad al-Turk and Riad Seif, as well as Kurdish protesters.
He was born into a Christian family active in the leftist opposition in 1959 in the city of Hama.
He headed a short-lived European Union-funded human rights training centre in Damascus until it was shut down by the government in 2006.
He was arrested later that year after signing an appeal for normalisation of relations between Syria and Lebanon – the so-called Beirut-Damascus Declaration.
He was handed a five-year sentence for “spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale, affiliating with an unlicensed political association with an international nature, discrediting state institutions and contacting a foreign country”, according to his lawyer.
He was released in May this year.
Writer Loay Hussein was jailed from 1984 to 1991 for opposing the government.
Just days after protests began in Deraa in March this year, he was arrested for speaking out in favour of the demonstrations. He was reportedly severely beaten by security forces.
Talking to Al Jazeera as the opposition meeting in Damascus got under way, he urged the government to stop the crackdown and prosecution of political activists.
He said he did not expect any concrete results to come out of the gathering.
“We are meeting to exchange viewpoints… we’re quite keen to open up the political life and take the opportunity to offer alternatives to the regime.”
|Sara has spent years in prison on charges
of “weakening national sentiment’ [AFP]
Fayez Sara is a 61-year-old Syrian writer and journalist.
He has written for numerous Arabic publications and is the founding member of the Committee for the Revival of the Civil Society. He is also a member of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights.
He was arrested in April 2011 in Damascus, after having participated to a meeting of the Damascus Declaration National Council.
A Damascus court investigated him on charges of attacking the prestige of the state, disseminating untrue reports with the aim of undermining national morale, influencing sectarian and ethnic divisions and “disrupting national purity”.
He had been released just a month earlier after being detained for two-and-a-half years.
Sara, along with other arrested activists, had been convicted for “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country.”
Mazen Darwish, born in 1974, has been a vocal critic of Syria’s limited freedom of expression. He was the director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression until it was shut down by authorities in 2009.
Based in Damascus, he has been arrested during the Syrian uprising after regularly speaking to media about the protests.