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Prominent Syria rights defender Mazen Darwish freed

Mazen Darwish was arrested in February 2012, accused of “promoting terrorist acts”. Photo taken from social media advocating his release from prison

The prominent free speech campaigner Mazen Darwish was released from prison in Syria Monday after more than three years behind bars, pending a verdict in his case at the end of this month, his wife and activists said.

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“We are not saying he is free. There is still a trial,” his wife, Yara Badr, told Reuters, adding that he must appear in court at the end of August.

The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, the organisation Darwish founded, confirmed his release.

“After an arbitrary arrest that lasted three years, five months, and 23 days, Mazen Darwish has been released from prison today," the group said in a statement.

Darwish, 41, was arrested along with two colleagues from in February 2012, nearly one year into the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The three were accused of "promoting terrorist acts" and held despite repeated calls from media and rights groups for their release.

They were moved between prisons several times, and court dates in their case were regularly postponed.

Darwish's colleagues Hussein Ghreir and Hani al-Zaitani were released last month in an amnesty announced as a gesture for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Badr said Darwish was supposed to benefit from the same amnesty, but his release was delayed.

Since his detention, the Syrian conflict has descended into a multi-sided civil war that is estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people and fractured the country.

‘Leading symbol of resistance’

Both Amnesty International and media watchdog Reporters without Borders welcomed Darwish's release.

"We are relieved that Mazen Darwish is free again and we are now waiting for the court to find him innocent," said the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire.

"Darwish is a leading symbol of resistance to a regime that has constantly suppressed independently reported news and information and covered up human rights violations."

Amnesty International hailed his "long overdue" release and said charges against him and his colleagues should be dropped.

"Mazen Darwish and his colleagues should never have been in jail in the first place," said Said Boumedouha, acting director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Programme.

"The Syrian authorities must drop all charges against Mazen and his colleagues and end their relentless campaign to target anyone who dares to speak out about the appalling human rights violations in the country."

Systematic torture

Darwish has received multiple awards in acknowledgement of his work, including UNESCO's annual press freedom prize in May.

His wife accepted the award on his behalf, saying it was dedicated to his children in the hope they would grow up in a free Syria.

"We need a time to learn how to listen to people who have different opinions," she said. "Mazen has already forgiven those who tortured him almost to death."

Some 200,000 people are held in Syrian government detention centres, prisons and security facilities, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

Last year, President Assad signed an amnesty that was supposed to see tens of thousands of political prisoners freed, but rights activists say only several hundred were actually released.

Rights organisations and the United Nations have said torture is practised systematically in Syrian prisons, and photos purportedly taken inside the country's detention facilities have documented appalling abuses.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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