By Ali Gharib and Zainab Mineeia
"WASHINGTON, Oct 31 (IPS) - With media and diplomatic attention focused on the international incident ignited by a U.S. cross-border raid from Iraq into Syrian territory last weekend, the Syrian government quietly handed down 30-month prison terms to a group of democracy activists on Wednesday.
Few took notice, although Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to immediately overturn the convictions and order the release of prisoners arrested during a crackdown on the Damascus Declaration movement in late 2007 and early 2008.
Forty activists who participated in a Damascus Declaration forum had been detained, although most were later released. In a 20-minute sentencing session, the 12 who were prosecuted and convicted were given stiff prison terms for allegedly attempting to promote gradual political change in the country.
"In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW. "The trial was a mere cover to legitimise the government's repression of opposition groups and peaceful critics."
But the best cover for the Syrian regime may have come from the U.S., Syria expert and Oklahoma University professor Joshua Landis told IPS.
"The world is not concentrating on this; the world is concentrating on America's violation of Syrian territory," Landis told IPS, noting that even some of the U.S.'s allies have condemned the raid......."
See Human Rights Watch Report:
Syria: Harsh Sentences for Democratic Opposition