A military court in Syria on Sunday sentenced a human rights activist accused of harming the country's relations with Iran to 18 months in prison. Ali Abdullah's sentence was based on allegations that he made critical comments against Iran [AP report], thereby harming Syria's relations with a foreign country. Abdullah, an outspoken member of the "Damascus Declaration" group, previously served a 30 month sentence for his criticisms of the Syrian government. He is not the only member of the "Damascus Declaration" group, known for its 2005 declaration calling for Syria's transition into a democratic nation and improved relations with neighboring Lebanon, to be punished. In January 2008, the Syrian government arrested [JURIST report] former parliamentarian and dissident Riyad Sayf, also a prominent member of the group, and, in 2007, a Syrian court sentenced writer and activist Michel Kilo [JURIST report], who was arrested after signing the group's Beirut-Damascus Declaration, to a prison term of three years for "speaking false news, weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian sentiments."
Over the past several years, Syria has increased its prosecution of political dissidents, drawing strong criticism from the international community. However, in an interview last month, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad indicated he would push for political reforms including municipal elections and a new media law [CP report]. Soon after the interview, Internet users reported [JURIST report] that social media sites Facebook [website; JURIST news archive] and YouTube [website; JURIST news archive] were accessible without proxy servers or VPNs. This news made it appear as though Syria was lifting the ban imposed in 2007 as a concession to avoid popular upheaval [DP report] in the country. Because both Facebook and YouTube are routinely accessed by Syrians through international proxy servers, the concession may have limited impact. Other websites, such as Amazon and Wikipedia, remain blocked for the time being.