EU Must Put Human Rights at the Centre of Cooperation with Syria

Chairwoman Hautala called for Syria to release political prisoners in her address to the Damascus Declaration Nationaol Council Conference, held in Brussels on 6-7.11. 2010. [:]



Dear friends, 

I am most honoured to be able to address your conference via a good friend of mine, Mr Iyas al-Maleh.


I have got to know Iyas al-Maleh through our work at the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights concerning the situation of human rights defenders in Syria, and of course, in trying to get his father, Mr Haytham al-Maleh, out of prison.


The bad human rights situation in Syria worsened in 2009. Human rights proponents face intense persecution and passing and receiving information is terribly difficult and even outright dangerous in Syria. Still standing emergency rule, in force since 1963, allows for arbitrarily detaining people without warrants and pushing them through judicial system without any procedural guarantees.


While these words might seem abstract, the case of Haytham al-Maleh testifies to the human cost of this persecution and lawlessness.


Haytham Al-Maleh was arbitrarily arrested by General Intelligence Service on 14 October 2009, held incommunicado and tried before the Second Military Court of Damascus despite the fact that military tribunals should not try civilians. While the choice of a tribunal is wholly unacceptable, the fairness of the proceedings on the whole is a wider matter of concern. The use of evidence and space allowed for defence do not come near the universally agreed standards of a free and fair hearing.


On 4 July 2010 Haytham Al-Maleh was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on the grounds of “transferring false and exaggerated news that weaken national sentiment”, under Articles 285 and 286 of the Syrian Criminal Code. As I have declared at the European Parliament Plenary before, I repeat now – such charges are unacceptable as they undermine freedom of expression and are all too easy to abuse by an authoritarian regime. They have no place in jurisdiction of any modern state. Almost without exception their sole purpose is to silence dissent and critical voices, such as that of Mr al-Maleh.


On 19 October the Court of Appeals in Damascus rejected the appeal against the Military Court verdict against Haytham Al-Maleh. One week before this, also the appeal against Muhannad Al-Hassani’s verdict had been rejected.


Most recently, I have received with great alarm the news that on October 28 that Muhannad al-Hassani who is serving a three years’ sentence for “spreading false news” sharing a cell with 60 common criminals was badly beaten by one of the criminals, causing severe injuries.


After this abuse, Mr al-Hassani was left for four days in the same prison cell with the man who attacked him. After this Muhannad Al-Hassani was moved to the solitary detention cell, and not the person who attacked him.


More worryingly, I have now learned that Haytham al-Maleh, who is 80 years old and suffers from poor health, has commenced a hunger strike until Muhannad Al-Hassani has been released from solitary confinement.


This brings unimaginable distress to his family and us who have closely followed his case.


In strongest terms, I urge the Syrian authorities to guarantee humane detention conditions for Mr Al-Hassani and ensure access to medicine and health care for Mr Al-Maleh.




European Parliament adopted resolutions on the situation Mr Al-Hassani on 17th of September 2009 and on the situation of Mr Al-Maleh on 9 September 2010.


The resolutions strongly called for their immediate release, for the Syrian authorities to seize harassment of human rights activists and release all political prisoners.


As is the case with so many other prisoners in Syria, there are serious grounds to believe that Al-Maleh and al-Hassani are a victims of repression of by the authorities, in response to their human rights work.


Continued detention of Mr al-Maleh and al-Hassani is unacceptable. The Syrian authorities must release them immediatelyguarantee in all circumstances their safety.

Not only do the resolutions, however, raise the cases of Mr al-Maleh and Mr al-Hassani, they call on the Syrian Government to immediately release all prisoners of conscience, including Mr Ali Al-Abdullah, Mr Anour Al-Bunni and Mr Kamal Labwani.

The resolutions also urged for better protection for human rights defenders in Syria.





Indeed, the protection of human rights defenders is my key priority as the Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights. On 17 June the European Parliament adopted with near unanimity my report on how the EU could protect human rights defenders better around the world.


In my report I made concrete proposals on how the EU Human Rights Policy could be made more effective. I aimed to give all EU delegations abroad tools on how they can help human rights defenders and advocates to stay safe and continue their vital work. Now when these tools have been prepared, I also expect the EU delegations to use them and offer concrete help to all those activists who have been persecuted by their governments.


For instance, key recommendations of the report are to create a job of human rights official into all of the EU Delegations abroad and a requirement that these delegations have a concrete plan on how they would assist the human rights defenders on the ground. This is vitally important in the case of Syria and implementation of these recommendations shall be followed up carefully by the Subcommittee. I urge you all to be in touch with the EU delegation in Damascus for this aim.



As these problems in Syria with regards persecution and imprisonments of the human rights defenders are acutely pressing, I instructed the Subcommittee on Human Rights to discuss the prison conditions in Syria on 25 October.


No access is allowed for human rights organisations to detention facilities and reports of severe torture and ill-treatment, incommunicado detention and arbitrary arrests are frequent. There are also reported deaths in detention.


This information is all the more crucial against the background that the draft Association Agreement between EU and Syria is being negotiated.


At the hearing the members of the Subcommittee stressed that it is vitally important that EU remember that at the core of any cooperation must always be the respect for human rights.


Indeed, the Treaty of Lisbon says that the Union is founded on respect for human rights, that in its relations with the wider world the Union shall contribute to protection of human rights and that the Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms.


As the promotion of human rights is both a basic value and an objective of the Union’s foreign policy, so must it also be a cornerstone in any continuing dialogue between the EU and Syria.


The members of the Subcommittee further underlined that in order to complete the negotiations and any agreement, it is of paramount importance that EU pay particular attention to the human rights situation in Syria.




My colleagues, in conclusion, I wish to assure you that I, as the chairwoman of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, shall remain seized on the situation of human rights and human rights defenders in Syria. I will also ensure that the Subcommittee shall closely monitor the progress with regards the Association Agreement.




As final words, I would like to recall above the agreements, reports and treaties, these misguided policies and outright abusive practices have a terrible human cost.


In case of Haytham Al-Maleh, we have no time to waste. I fear for the effects of the hunger strike for his already fragile health and poor access to medication. He must be released immediately.


Dear friends.


We must stand steadfast in our support for the work of human rights defenders. They are the most courageous people who are willing to suffer hardship and danger in order to protect the rights of others. Haytham Al-Maleh is in prison because he stood up to protect the rights of all others. Of all Syrians.