On November 8, 2005, Syrian police arrested Syrian physician and political activist Kamal al-Labwani as he arrived at Damascus International Airport upon his return from a trip to France and the United States. In Washington, he had met with officials at the White House.[1] A Syrian court charged him with "communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria."[2] While imprisoned, his fate remained uncertain pending sentencing. On December 13, 2006, President George W. Bush called for Bashar al-Assad's regime to "immediately free all political prisoners" and named six imprisoned dissidents, including Labwani.[3]

Labwani has long been a thorn in the Syrian regime's side. He angered officials with his advocacy for human rights and fundamental freedoms and has been a consistent advocate for reform. On August 28, 2002, a Syrian court sentenced him to three years in prison for his activities promoting reform during the "Damascus Spring," the short period in 2000-01 in which the Syrian regime appeared to tolerate more open political criticism. Rather than cow Labwani, his previous imprisonment emboldened him. Following his September 2004 release from prison,[4] he founded the Democratic Liberal Gathering which calls for political and free-market reforms and equality for women.

On May 10, 2007, one week after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Syria's foreign minister Walid al-Moallem for the highest-level bilateral talks between the two governments in more than two years,[5] a Syrian court sentenced Kamal al-Labwani to twelve years imprisonment and hard labor. That the harsh sentence coincides with Washington's decision to reengage Damascus suggests that Assad believes the White House no longer holds it accountable for its persecution of nonviolent dissidents. "We have no desire to have bad relations with Syria. Of course, we want to have better relations with Syria," Rice told CNN after her meeting with Moallem.[6]

After Labwani's sentence, his children issued a statement that the Syrian regime was not able to "imprison his ideas and his hunger for freedom. They cannot detain his right to dream of a better country where all people are equal before the law. Our dad still dreams in prison—and thousands of people share the dream."[7]

While the White House condemned Labwani's sentence,[8] it has yet to translate its displeasure into policy. After her meeting with Moallem, Rice also said that the Syrian government's "actions will speak louder than words."[9] Perhaps, the same standard should apply to the White House's response to the imprisonment of pro-reform activists whose major crimes consist of visiting Washington. While the White House is strong on rhetoric, perhaps it is time for the U.S. reaction to speak louder than words.

Adam Pechter is deputy publisher of the Middle East Quarterly.

[1] "Statement by the Press Secretary on a Call for the Release of Dr. Kamal Labwani and Others," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, Dec. 10, 2005.
[2] "Syria: Peaceful Activist Gets 12 Years with Hard Labor," Human Rights Watch, May 11, 2007.
[3] "President's Statement on the Government of Syria," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, Dec. 13, 2006.
[4] Reporters Sans Frontières press release, Paris, Dec. 8, 2004.
[5] "Rice Meets with Syrian Foreign Minister at Iraq Conference," U.S. Department of State, May 3, 2007.
[6] CNN, May 3, 2007.
[7] "Anyone Remembering Kamal?," FreeSyriaWordPress.com, June 2, 2007.
[8] "Statement Condemning Sentencing of Political Prisoners in Syria and Vietnam," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, May 11, 2007.
[9] "Rice Meets with Syrian Foreign Minister," May 3, 2007.