Journalist charged after advocating dialogue

Following violent protests last week in the capital, Damascus, against negative depictions of the prophet Mohamed in a Danish newspaper, charges have been filed against a journalist who called for peaceful dialogue to settle the issue.

Following his arrest on 7 February, journalist Adel Mahfouz has been charged with insulting public religious sentiment, an offence under Syrian criminal law. He could face up to three years in prison if found guilty.

Mahfouz, a known opposition figure, regularly publishes articles for online journal Rezgar, run by the Iraqi communist party.

The arrest took place hours after the publication of an article stating that violent protests against the cartoons served to enforce the mistaken perception that violence and Islam were linked.

Since October, angry – and often violent – protests against the offensive drawings have caused Denmark to temporarily close its embassies in Indonesia, Iran and Syria. In Afghanistan, four people have died in riots, while the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Tehran, Beirut and Damascus were attacked.

According to Syrian opposition figures, the arrest of Mahfouz comes within the context of a government strategy aimed at convincing western countries that pressure on Syria will lead to a rise of radical Islam.

“They want the radical voice to be heard loudly, so that they can crush the democratic opposition without interference from the west,” said Anwar al-Bunni, a Syrian human rights lawyer. "They want the west to think that, if the regime falls, the Islamists will take over."

Analyst Joshua Landis, editor of the Syriacomment website, agreed: "The Danish cartoon imbroglio can be harnessed by the government."

An eyewitness at a protest in Damascus reported that "men with hand-held radios were directing the rioters" and instructing the crowds to march to the embassies.

This month has also seen a general crack-down on dissidents.

Ten days ago, two students were detained in Damascus for setting up a discussion group, while an interpreter, Abdul Mughith Habab, was due in court this week on charges of insulting President Bashar al-Assad. Habab was arrested a month ago after speaking with journalists about Syria’s high security courts.

Critics allege that the courts, which operate under Syria's 43 year-old emergency laws, have often been used for the arbitrary detention and conviction of opposition figures.

Local and international human rights groups, meanwhile, are calling for the immediate release of 50 year-old Mahfouz.

“We’re urging that he be released, unless he is to be charged with a recognisable criminal offence,” said Rachel Campbel, Middle East researcher at the London offices of rights watchdog Amnesty International.