Syria released a leading lawyer and human rights activist who was imprisoned since 2009 for "spreading false information" after giving a television interview that criticized excessive government security and corruption, human rights groups said Tuesday.
Haitham al-Maleh, who is 80 and has diabetes and thyroid problems, was released Monday night, said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights. He was convicted in July and sentenced to three years in prison.
"Haitham al-Maleh's release is welcome, if long overdue," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Like so many others across Syria, he was detained only for exercising his right to freedom of expression. It is unacceptable that authorities continue to use the national state of emergency to suppress dissenting voices."
The release came hours after President Bashar Assad issued an amnesty for older prisoners and others convicted of minor crimes.
The amnesty comes during a wave of unrest in several Middle Eastern countries that has brought down the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, and threatened the rule of others. Since succeeding his late father Hafez Assad as president in 2000, Bashar Assad has released hundreds of political prisoners while clamping down on liberals, showing there are limits to how much dissent the government will tolerate.
Al-Maleh and 12 other political prisoners had begun a hunger strike this week to demand their release and the lifting of emergency laws that give authorities a free hand to jail political and human rights activists.
It was not the first time al-Maleh had be jailed. He was imprisoned from 1980 to 1986 after demanding constitutional reforms.