Syria: United Nations Calls for Release of Activist Ammar Tellawi

On 28 August 2014, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), during its 70th Session, adopted an opinion (Opinion No. 36/2014) on the case of 35-year old activist and PhD student at Damascus University, Ammar Tellawi, considering his detention "arbitrary" and calling for his release.

Despite the absence of response from the Syrian Government to Alkarama's submission, the WGAD considered that it was in a position to render an Opinion on Tellawi's case as to the arbitrariness of his detention and inconsistence with international standards set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Syria accessed in 1969.

Tellawi, a Peaceful Activist Sentenced for "Changing the Social Character of the State"

On 9 December 2006, Tellawi was arrested by a patrol of the Syrian Military Intelligence at the bus depot in Damascus. A peaceful opponent of the regime since the time of Hafez al Assad, Tellawi has published a number of books and organised various roundtables on the political situation in Syria. His political engagement eventually led to his detention by Syrian authorities.

Beaten up during his arrest, Tellawi was then taken to a secret location where he was tortured – in violation of UDHR, Article 5 and ICCPR, Article 7 to which Syria is a party. Subjected to electrical shocks all night, Tellawi even suffered a temporary memory loss. Whilst Tellawi's family was initially kept unaware of his fate and whereabouts, they later learnt that he was detained incommunicado at Branch 235 of the Military Intelligence in Damascus – a detention centre also known as the "Palestine Branch".

In January 2008, after more than a year of secret detention, Tellawi was brought before an investigating judge who charged him with taking part in an "association established in order to change the social character of the State by terrorist means," a crime under Article 306 of the Syrian Code of Criminal Procedure. It is only three years later, on 30 January 2011, that the charge was confirmed by the Supreme State Security Court, which sentenced him to 15 years of imprisonment following an unfair trial. In fact, in addition to the complete lack of evidence substantiating the charges, Tellawi's lawyer was never allowed to access his client's file to prepare his defence. This goes against both international and domestic law, since Articles 104, 424 and 425 of the Syrian Penal Code states that no one may be detained without having been charged and that any person accused of a crime, or any suspect arrested, must be promptly questioned by a judge.
In June 2011, Tellawi was transferred to Aleppo prison where he is still detained today in solitary confinement and frequently subjected to humiliation and ill-treatment. Furthermore, his family has been prohibited from visiting him since February 2014.

Working Group Calls for His Release and Denounces Trial of Civilians in Military Courts

Whilst the WGAD's experts concluded that Tellawi's detention constituted a serious breach of fair trial guarantees provided for in UDHR, Articles 9 and 10, and ICCPR, Articles 10 and 14, they also established that his detention was resulting from the exercise of his rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association – protected under ICCPR, Articles 19, 21, 22.

The WGAD further stated that "the trial of civilians or decisions placing civilians in preventive detention by military courts [such as the former Supreme State Security Court] are in breach of the fundamental requirements of independence and impartiality and guarantees for a fair trial."

The UN experts finally called upon the Syrian government to bring Tellawi's situation into conformity with the law by releasing him immediately, and to grant him an effective right to compensation, which shall be enforceable before national courts.

Alkarama hopes that Syrian authorities will implement this decision and put an end to the systematic reprisals against peaceful opponents, including the practice of incommunicado detention, and to ensure that fair trial guarantees be respected in all proceedings.

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