Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 18:38 UK

Syrian dissident economist freed

Aref Dalila after his release
Mr Dalila's release raises hopes of an easing on the crackdown on dissidents

Syrian dissident Aref Dalila, who was jailed nearly seven years ago, has been freed by the Syrian authorities.

An economist, he was jailed in 2002 on charges of trying to corrupt the constitution, inciting armed rebellion and spreading false information.

Mr Dalila, 65, had been sentenced to 10 years; one report said he may have been freed through a presidential pardon.

He was said to be the last figure in jail from the Damascus Spring, a period of greater political openness in 2000.

The Spring followed the death of long-serving Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and the succession of his son, Bashar al-Assad.

Bashar al-Assad initially tolerated the discussion groups that were held in private homes, but a tough clampdown began in 2001.

Mr Dalila was jailed after calling for freedom of expression and abolishing government monopolies in the economy.

He told the BBC soon after his release that his views had not changed and that he would continue to voice them. He said his release was not conditional on any pledge of silence.

Failing health

"Aref Dalila was freed in line with a presidential pardon after having spent seven years in jail," National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria chief Ammar Qorabi told the AFP news agency.

In July, Mr Qorabi called on President Bashar al-Assad to grant an amnesty to Mr Dalila "because of a deterioration in his state of health and to turn a new page with the Syrian opposition".

Mohannad al-Husni, the head of the Syrian Human Rights Organisation, said he was optimistic the release of Mr Dalila could be a step towards more freedoms

Mr Dalila, who was a former dean of the Damascus University economics faculty in the late 1980s, was arrested in 2001 along with nine other opposition activists and jailed the following year for trying to "modify the constitution and denigrate the state".

The Syrian authorities continue to hold people for their political views.

Some critics of the government, including the prominent opposition leader and former MP Riad Seif, are still in custody.

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