BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian activists said Thursday a prominent rights lawyer believed to be in government custody for more than eight months is suffering from deteriorating health and called for his immediate release.
The lawyer, Khalil Maatouk, was abducted while driving to his Damascus office in October and hasn't been heard from since. The 54-year-old is one of thousands of Syrians who have disappeared since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began more than two years ago, and many of them are believed to be held in government detention centers.
Amnesty International estimates that tens of thousands of Syrians are being held incommunicado by the Assad regime but does not have exact figures. The Syrian government denies such cases exist, and says all arrests are carried out legally.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Maatouk, who is known to have lung disease, is being held in an underground Syrian intelligence detention facility. The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria to gather information, said Maatouk's health is deteriorating and called on the United Nations high commissioner for Human rights to help secure his release.
Maatouk tracked and reported on the detention of activists before the anti-Assad uprising began, and continued his work after the revolt broke out in March 2011.
Soon after Maatouk disappeared, a friend of the attorney and lawyer Anwar al-Bunni told the New-York based Human Rights Watch that Maatouk had been traveling down a road loaded with government checkpoints, making it unlikely that non-state actors kidnapped him. Al-Bunni also said that Maatouk had been summoned for interrogation a number of times before his abduction because of his work representing detained activists and his frequent travels.
Maatouk was one of the lawyers following the detention case of another prominent activist, Mazen Darwish, and his colleagues.
Darwish, of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus, was detained in February 2012 and has since been put on trial in a terrorism court, accused along with four colleagues, of "publicizing terrorist acts."
The Syria-based human rights Violations Documentation Center said the trial of the five on Wednesday was once again postponed to Aug. 21 after the prosecution demanded that the documents and computers confiscated from the defendants' offices be shared with the court.
Syria's conflict started out as peaceful protests against the Assad regime. After a bloody government crackdown on demonstrators, many Syrians took up arms against the regime.
Faced with a relentless rebellion, Assad said his country is at war with terrorists and ratified a new terrorism a law in July 2012 that includes a clause specifically aimed at the opposition. Under the law, the penalty for terrorism that aims to change the regime would exceed 20 years of hard labor.
Human Rights Watch said Darwish and his colleagues were on trial for acts such as distributing humanitarian aid, participating in protests, and documenting human rights abuses. In a statement Tuesday, the group said the trial in a counter-terrorism court violates due process, aims to stifle dissent and called for their release.
"The new Counterterrorism Court is providing judicial cover for the persecution of peaceful activists by Syria's security agencies," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "As the discussion about future negotiations between the opposition and government continue, all parties should remember the peaceful activists languishing in detention, subject to torture, mistreatment, and judicial processes that deny them their basic rights."
The group said lawyers in Syria working on cases of political detainees estimate that between 35,000 and 50,000 activists are tried before these courts.
The United Nations recently estimated that 93,000 people were killed between March 2011, when the crisis started, and the end of April 2013. The Observatory put its estimate at more than 100,000 up until this month.
As the bloodshed has intensified, hopes for an international conference to try to reach a political settlement between the regime and opposition have faded. Meanwhile, Washington and its allies say they will help arm the rebels.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday warned against shipping weapons to Syrian rebels, telling parliament that in her view, "the risks would be incalculable."
She did not explain why, but critics fear Western arms would only prolong the conflict without tipping the scales decisively. There are also concerns that Western weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists who might use them against Western targets down the road.
"Whether it would be successful or not is a different question but in my view the risks would be incalculable," Merkel said. "But I think everyone who has a heart understands the wish to stop the killing in Syria and to remove the Assad regime."
Associated Press writer Robert H. Reid contributed to this report from Berlin