A Syrian military court Sunday sentenced lawyer and activist Haitham Maleh [profile] to three years in prison for campaigning against the emergency rule under which Syria has been governed since 1963 [Amnesty International report]. Defense lawyers for Maleh said he was charged with "weakening national morale" [Reuters report]. The 78-year old former judge was put on trial in October 2009 sparking criticism from the US government [press release] and several human rights groups. In June the US government reiterated its disapproval [Reuters report] of Syria's increased crackdown on political dissidents and called for the release of several political prisoners, including Maleh. Lawyers for Maleh called the judgment "tragic" and fear that due to his age and poor health he will not survive his sentence. Maleh was held as a political prisoner for six years in the 1980s and was banned from leaving Syria. In 2006 he was awarded the Dutch Geuzen Medal, which is named after the Nazi resistance fighters, for serving as a political activist over the past several decades.
Over the past several years, Syria has increased its prosecution of political dissidents, drawing strong criticism from the international community. In October 2008 a Damascus criminal court sentenced twelve dissidents [JURIST report] accused of inciting sectarian strife to two and a half years in prison. They were found guilty on charges [Amnesty International report] of weakening national sentiment, broadcasting false or exaggerated news that could affect the morale of the country, joining an organization formed with the purpose of changing the financial or social status of the state, and inciting sectarian strife. In January 2008 the Syrian government arrested [JURIST report] former parliamentarian and dissident Riyad Sayf, a prominent member of the "Damascus Declaration" group which in 2005 issued a declaration urging Syria to embark on democratic transition and improve relations with Lebanon. In 2007 a Syrian court sentenced writer and activist Michel Kilo [JURIST report] to a prison term of three years for "speaking false news, weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian sentiments." Kilo was arrested in May 2005 along with nine other Syrians shortly after signing the so-called Beirut-Damascus Declaration of 12 May, which calls for the normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon, a properly demarcated border, the release of political prisoners, and an exchange of ambassadors.