York PEN is calling for the immediate release of Mazen Darwish and his co-defendants from unlawful detainment in Syria, in the wake of yet another deferral of his trial date.
Mazen Darwish was born in 1974 and graduated with a law degree from Damascus University in 1998. Within two years he had begun advocating for human rights, freedom of speech in particular, which would later come to be the cause of his imprisonment and unlawful detention. It was then he founded and became president of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, which is a partner organisation of Reporters Without Borders (2004). Upon refusal by the Syrian government to accredit the CMFE it began to operate in secret.
The CMFE was the first non-profit organisation to advocate human rights and defend freedom of speech in Syria, with the aim of raising awareness and spreading freedom of opinion and expression, belief and tolerance within Syrian society, while promoting the work of journalists and defenders of these freedoms.
Since 2011, the human rights abuses taking place during the uprising in Syria were documented by the CMFE, and it was this, as well as the provision of legal and technical support to journalists, that led to his arrest, along with fifteen other journalists and activists (including his wife, Yara Badr, journalist, who was later released) on 16th February 2012 for “publicising terrorist acts” under Article 8 of the 2012 Anti-Terrorism Act. Interestingly, Darwish’s lawyers have highlighted several procedural irregularities, including the absence of an arrest warrant.
On top of all of this is the concern that Darwish and his co-defendants have been mistreated and tortured in detention, and that any information extracted from them under torture will be used against them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been no official investigation into these allegations.
In June 2014, the Syrian government announced an amnesty for political prisoners, which encompassed the charges Darwish and his colleagues were facing, yet they remain detained nearly four months later. One lawyer working with detainees that come under the amnesty act has reported the judges sending files back to the public prosecutor to change the charges so they do not fall under the amnesty, an act of blatant injustice. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has called for the immediate and unconditional release of Darwish and his co-defendants, as have 79 other organisations that include Amnesty International, Free Press Unlimited, International Centre for Justice and Human rights and Iraqi Journalists Rights Defence Association, showing just how far spread the outrage is.
If he is convicted, he faces a prison sentence of up to fifteen years, as well as the nearly three years he has already spent in prison awaiting a trial that has been excessively delayed. The most recent date of this trial is the 5th November, but the likelihood of this happening becomes more and more dubious as time goes on, as it has already failed to comply with international standards.
Last week, Salman Rushdie chose Darwish to share the PEN Pinter Prize 2014, stating that “Mazen Darwish courageously fought for civilised values – free expression, human rights – in one of the most dangerous places in the world. His continued detention is arbitrary and unjust. He should be freed immediately, and we must hope this award may help, by shining a light on his plight.” Darwish’s acceptance speech is definitely worth a read.
York PEN calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Mazen Darwish, and for the allegations of torture and ill-treatment to be investigation as a matter of urgency.
Ways to take action:
- Share details of their case on social media using the hashtag #FreeSYVoices, and call on the Syrian authorities (@Presidency_Sy) to release them immediately;
- Send a message of support to Mazen Darwish and his family via firstname.lastname@example.org;
- Mazen Darwish is among the nominees for the 2014 Human Rights Tulip – you can show your support by voting for him here;
- Visit the Free Syria’s Silenced Voices website for more information and suggested actions.
- Sign our petition on Change.org