US advocates for jailed Syrian

Kamal Labwani was arrested after he returned from Washington.

Soon after he stepped off the airplane here on his return trip from Washington, Syrian opposition activist Kamal Labwani was promptly arrested.

The outspoken critic of Bashar al-Assad's regime who met with American officials during his trip to the US last month now faces charges of trying to weaken national sentiment, provoking sectarianism, and belonging to a secret association. He faces a maximum of three years in prison.

For the US, who has taken up Mr. Labwani's cause, he is a prime example of the unwillingness of Assad's regime to reform, even under extreme international pressure brought on by the government's failure to cooperate with a UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"This man who came to Europe and the United States to talk about a better future for his people is being punished and accused by the Syrian government," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday during a trip to the Middle East. A White House statement also called for the unconditional release of Labwani and other political prisoners.

But as the US has been trumpeting Labwani's plight, internal Syrian opposition has distanced itself from him. Wary of US intentions in the region, many view support from Labwani with suspicion.

Labwani is one of only a handful of opposition figures within Syria who has called for stronger ties with the US. Many here are afraid of being labeled the Syrian version of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition figure who many say helped build the case for the invasion of Iraq.

Labwani, a medical doctor from Zabadani, a mountainous area on the border with Lebanon, gained notoriety in Syria when he was arrested in 2001, along with nine other prominent activists. He served a three-year term and was released in September 2004.

Upon his release, Labwani returned to politics, giving lectures on democracy and the Damascus Spring. This year, he announced the formation of the Liberal Democratic Union, a new political party advocating strong ties with the West. (Syrian law forbids the formation of new political parties.)

But in meetings with US officials, Labwani chose not to speak on behalf of his new political party, says his lawyer, but asked for US support of the Damascus Declaration, which calls for reform and was signed last month by a coalition of opposition leaders, including Islamists.

Labwani, who did not sign the declaration himself, was criticized by Abdel-Azeem, the spokesman for the Declaration, for taking it to US officials without being a signatory. "As for the arrest, we are against the arrest of any Syrian citizen under the emergency law," says Abdel-Azeem.

"I am not against Rice saying what she said," says Louay Hussein, an opposition figure and owner of a publishing house. "But I am not convinced of their sincerity. They do not care about human rights or the human rights of Kamal Labwani. This was only for their benefit, not the benefit of the Syrian people."

Riad Nakshbandi, an engineer who used to work on the Tharwa Project, a project on minority issues in the Middle East until it was shut down last month, is another opposition figure who is not opposed to reaching out to the US.

"But there has to be a framework in how we deal with the Americans - not just a single person," says Mr. Nakshbandi.

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