- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — A human rights activist was sentenced to 12 years in prison yesterday for meeting with Bush administration officials at the White House during a 2005 visit to Washington.

Kamal Labwani, a Syrian physician and democracy advocate, was convicted of “contacting a foreign country, passing on messages and encouraging attack against Syria,” according to local reports, which noted that a maximum sentence could have been a lifetime of hard labor.

The sentence came as President Bashar Assad warned of growing political and military instability in the Middle East in his annual address to the Syrian parliament.

It also demonstrated a continued hard line a week after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syria’s foreign minister in Egypt — a meeting that signaled Washington’s willingness to re-engage with a nation that it has described as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The State Department yesterday condemned the “harsh and unjust sentencing” of Dr. Labwani and said it reflects “the Syrian regime’s contempt for human rights and a legal system devoid of legitimate legal standards.”

Dr. Labwani was arrested at the Damascus airport in November 2005 on his return from Washington, where he had met with National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, among others.

Dr. Labwani, 50, is the second prominent Syrian reformer to draw a prison sentence in recent weeks. Anwar al-Bunni, a human rights lawyer who had spoken out about torture in Syrian prisons, received a five-year sentence on April 24 on charges of spreading false news that could weaken national morale and of contacting a foreign country.

The crackdown has provoked an outcry from pro-democracy groups.

“This is the harshest judgment against a prisoner of conscience since President Bashar al-Assad came to power,” Ammar Qorabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, told Agence France-Presse.

Other human rights advocates have said in recent weeks that Mr. Assad’s government has retreated from the early promise of the “Damascus Spring” — a period in which dissidents were released from prison shortly after Mr. Assad succeeded his father in the presidential palace,.

Former Syrian Judge Haithem Maleh said this week that he fears the government has been increasing its opposition to human rights movements inside Syria.

“There has been zero progress, less than zero, in the last seven years,” said Mr. Maleh, 78.

International rights groups such as Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have criticized the Syrian government for taking harsh steps against detractors and advocates of free speech and political reform.

Six high-profile dissidents are in prison, serving terms or awaiting sentencing.

Mr. Assad did not mention the dissidents in his public remarks yesterday, but he did forcefully reject participation in a proposed international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“Any cooperation requested from Syria which could compromise our national sovereignty is rejected,” Mr. Assad said in the one-hour speech to the newly elected parliament.

“Syria is cooperating with the commission [investigating Mr. Hariri’s murder] but not with the tribunal. There is a difference between cooperation and abandoning our independence,” he said.

The remarks reaffirmed comments made to The Washington Times a week ago by Vice Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad.

Mr. Assad also criticized U.S. forces in Iraq and warned that Israel’s government is weak and therefore unable to make peace with its Arab neighbors.

The parliament, called the People’s Assembly and dominated by the ruling Ba’ath Party, yesterday unanimously nominated Mr. Assad for a second term, a formality that took no one by surprise. Mr. Assad, 41, stands unopposed to win a national referendum for a second seven-year term.

Campaign-style posters for Mr. Assad have sprouted all over Damascus in the last week. Demonstrations and marches have been organized on his behalf, and businesses are sponsoring public gathering spaces where people can listen to music and show support for the president.

The elections date has not been fixed, but most people here expect the yes-no vote to be held the last week of May.

Mr. Assad, who studied ophthalmology in England, won his first referendum shortly after the 2000 death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, with 97.2 percent of the vote.

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