Druze men raise Syrian flag.
Druze men raise Syrian flag. Photo by Reuters
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  A Syrian military court sentenced a 79-year-old lawyer on Sunday who campaigned for decades for an end to emergency law, jailing him for three years on charges of "weakening national morale", defense lawyers said.

"This is tragic. Haitham Maleh is an old and ill man," one of the lawyers said, while another feared that he would not survive the whole sentence.

Maleh, who spent six years as a political prisoner in the 1980s and was banned from leaving Syria, was awarded the Dutch Geuzen Medal in 2006, named after resistance fighters against the Nazis. Numerous international organizations and Western governments have called for his release.

The government has intensified a campaign of arrests of political opponents over the last two years.

Maleh was arrested last year after he stepped up criticism of corruption and the emergency law, which was imposed by the ruling Baath Party after it took power in 1963, banning any opposition.

His sentencing came two weeks after Mohannad al-Hassani, a 43-year-old lawyer, was also jailed for three years on the same charges. "Mohannad is young and can take three harsh years in jail. The chances that Maleh can live through them are slim," another lawyer said.

The president of the International Lawyers Union, Corrado de Martini, appealed to Syrian officials at a legal conference in Damascus in April for Maleh's release. Putting Maleh in prison showed disregard for his pursuit of justice and for his ailing health, he said.

Ten days ago the United States called on Syria to free Maleh as well as Hassani and Ali al-Abdallah, a writer and political prisoner who was released on June 23 and sent back to prison a day later for an article criticizing Syria's ties with Iran.

Abdallah was among 12 people arrested during 2007 and jailed after they tried to revive the Damascus Declaration, a rights movement named after a document signed in 2005 by opposition figures which demanded that bans on freedom of speech and assembly be lifted and emergency law abolished.

Despite the wave of arrests, Syria has enjoyed international rehabilitation after years in isolation due to disputes with the West over Syria's role in Lebanon and Iraq, and its support for militant groups.