Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has released human rights activist Mazen Darwish “in a rare goodwill gesture” after holding him for three years. A verdict for his case should be released later this month.
Darwish, who operated the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, openly criticized President Bashar al-Assad’s “crackdown on protests” after the country descended into a civil war four years ago. Authorities accused Darwish and two other colleagues of “promoting terrorist acts.” The centre said his release corresponds with “amnesty issued last month by Assad.”
“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,” explained Said Boumedouha, chief of Amnesty International’s Mideast and North Africa program. “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.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Syrian authorities raided Darwish’s office on February 16, 2012. They arrested everyone in the building, including two visitors. The visitors were released, but the government “tried seven staff members for ‘possession of illegal documents published with the aim of overthrowing the regime,’ sentenced them to time served, and released them in mid-May 2012.” Authorities never released information about the remaining captured men, including Darwish. HRW claimed families believed their loved ones died, but the “agents tortured and mistreated them.”
Assad developed a reputation for arresting people who criticized his regime even before the civil war. In April 2011, The Guardian interviewed a man known as Mahmoud. Officials arrested him in 2001 “during a clampdown on free speech.” He spent five years in prison and told the publication he does not know how he survived.
“It is hard to imagine how I got through it,” he described. “For four years I was in a cell two metres by two metres. Some months went by without sunlight, with no access to books or radio, and no visitors. And all simply because of my opinions.”
A report from 2013 claimed the government held “tens of thousands of political prisoners.” HRW said the prisoners included “medics who treated protesters, businessmen accused of raising money for Syrians displaced by the fighting and software developers who worked with citizen journalists.” At least 21 prisoners told the group that officials beat them “with batons, cables and metal rods” while others accused them of rape and sexual abuse.