Syria releases award-winning activist Mazen Darwish

UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize winner released after more than three years in jail ahead of hearing later this month.

Reporters without Borders Darwish protest Syria
Human rights and press freedoms organisations have long called on the Syrian government to release Darwish [AP]

Syrian authorities have released award-winning human rights activist Mazen Darwish after more than three years in jail pending a verdict in his case later this month.

He was an outspoken critic of the government’s crackdown on protests that erupted against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in March 2011, and was detained less than a year later.

Amnesty International said Darwish should never have been jailed in the first place and called on the government to halt its campaign targeting those who dare speak about the “appalling human rights violations” in Syria.

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His wife, Yara Bader, told the AFP news agency that Darwish had been freed ahead of a final verdict in his case at the end of the month.

Darwish was the director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression when he was arrested in February 2012 along with two of his colleagues, Hani al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir.

The organisation confirmed his release on Monday but said he was still required to stand trial. His two colleagues were released last month.

“After an arbitrary arrest that lasted three years, five months, and 23 days, Mazen Darwish has been released from prison today,” the group said in a statement.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government, which continues to hold thousands of political prisoners, according to human rights groups.

Darwish has been standing trial on charges of “promoting terrorist acts,” and his organisation said his release followed an amnesty issued last month by Assad that supposedly covered his case. 

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“Darwish and his colleagues should never have been in jail in the first place. His release today is long overdue, but comes as a welcome relief after three and half years of anguish and uncertainty,” said Said Boumedouha, chief of Amnesty’s Mideast and North Africa programme.

“The Syrian authorities must drop all charges against Mazen and his colleagues and end their relentless campaign to target anyone who dares to speak out about the appalling human rights violations in the country,” added Boumedouha.

Well-known opposition figure Kamal Labwani, who spent years in jail in Syria and now lives in Sweden, said Damascus used Darwish as “a hostage” in order to portray his release as a goodwill gesture.

“A good will gesture for what,” Labwani told the AP news agency. “His right was to be free.”

International human rights and press freedoms organisations, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have long called on the Syrian government to release Darwish. The United Nations also called for his release.

In February, 71 human rights groups called on the Syrian government to immediately free Darwish and his colleagues. Their joint statement came on the third anniversary of their arrest and described Darwish’s trial as “nothing more than a sham and a deep miscarriage of justice.”

In April, Darwish won the UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Prize in recognition of the work that he has carried out in Syria “for more than 10 years at great personal sacrifice, enduring a travel ban, harassment, as well as repeated detention and torture”. He is also winner of the Reporters Without Borders award in 2013.

Source: News Agencies