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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
Syria jails human rights activist
Anwar al-Bunni
Bunni is one of Syria's best known opposition activists
A Syrian human rights activist has been jailed for five years for spreading hostile information and joining an illegal political group, lawyers say.

Anwar al-Bunni, a prominent advocate for democratic reform in Syria, has been in detention since May 2006.

Correspondents say the heavy sentence sends a strong warning to the opposition and shows Syria has turned its back on Western pressure to reform.

Bunni was also ordered to pay a fine of about 1,000 ($2,000).

The court convicted him of 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, his lawyer Khalil Matouk said.

Bunni told the court he was proud of what he was doing.

"I didn't commit any crime. This sentence is to shut me up and to stop the effort to expose human rights violations in Syria," he said, according to Reuters.

There has been no confirmation of the sentence from the Syrian authorities, who usually do not comment on trials related to political or national security issues.

'Flagrant violation'

Bunni was arrested after signing an appeal for radical reform in relations between Syria and Lebanon in May 2006.

The Beirut-Damascus Declaration, calling on Syria to recognise Lebanon as a fully independent country, was signed by nearly 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals.

Two prominent fellow signatories, Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, have also been charged over the same petition.

Mr Matouk, said he would appeal against Bunni's conviction within 30 days.

He called the trial politically motivated and "a flagrant violation of freedom of opinion and expression and an attempt to intimidate Syrian society".

Crackdown

Bunni, 48, sometimes defended members of his family in court, many of whom are political dissidents. His two brothers have already spent 30 years in jail between them.

He had used EU funding to start a human rights training centre in Syria.

In the past two years the authorities have stepped up their crackdown on dissidents, and international human rights organisations say the situation is deteriorating, says the BBC's Kim Ghattas in Beirut.

The conviction was announced as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in Damascus for tough talks with President Bashar al-Assad on two Lebanese issues.

Mr Ban wants Syria to support an international court to try the suspected killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and to prevent arms smuggling to the Hezbollah militant group.




SEE ALSO
Syrian human rights lawyer 'held'
18 May 06 |  Middle East
Syria 'to release' dissident Kilo
19 Oct 06 |  Middle East
Country profile: Syria
20 Apr 07 |  Country profiles



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