DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrian police detained the country's leading rights lawyer and seven other rights activists Wednesday, as a government newspaper rebuked those who had signed a petition calling for an improvement in Syrian-Lebanese relations.
Anwar al-Bunni was dragged out of his home by security forces, his family said. A day earlier, he had publicly condemned the arrest of another rights activist. Eight people have been detained over the past two days in what Syrian human rights groups described as the largest roundup of rights activists in years.
The National Organization for Human Rights in Syria contended that this week's arrests were part of an organized campaign, the largest since a similar move in September 2001 targeted dozens of activists, ending the "Damascus Spring" that followed President Bashar Assad's July 2000 ascension to power.
During the so-called spring, pro-democracy and human rights activists were allowed a measure of freedom denied during the presidency of Bashar's father, Hafez Assad.
In London, the Arab Press Freedom Watch condemned the crackdown and urged the world to put pressure on the Syrian government to release detainees.
"The Baath regime seems to have lost patience for the increasing voices of the opposition and decided to step up political detention," Freedom Watch said in a statement.
Last month, Amnesty International criticized Syria for arresting and detaining political and human rights activists.
Apart from al-Bunni, security police on Wednesday arrested Mahmoud Issa, Safwan Tayfour in Hama, Khaled Khalifa, Khalil Hussein and Abbas Abbas, the Syrian Organization for Human Rights said in faxes to The Associated Press.
Issa and Hussein had been incarcerated previously for eight and 12 years respectively.
The organization called for the immediate halt to the arrests and urged international organizations to interfere to stop "this series of violations against activists."
Meanwhile, the Committees for Defending Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria said in a statement faxed to AP that security police arrested Nidal Darwish Tuesday.
The Syrian Organization for Human rights claimed in another statement that intelligence agents on Tuesday arrested Mahmoud Marei, member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights.
No reason was given for the detention, but Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said in a fax that the men were likely detained for signing a petition calling for better relations with Lebanon. Only one of the seven, Khalifa, did not sign the petition.
Some 500 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals last week singed the petition that calls for better relations with Lebanon.
The latest detentions came after Sunday's arrest of prominent writer and democracy campaigner Michel Kilo, who also put his name to the petition.
Syria would not confirm the arrests since authorities almost never issue statements about such detentions they deem security matters.
State-run daily Tishrin criticized the "Damascus-Beirut Declaration" saying it draws a "dim picture" of Syrian-Lebanese relations and contains lots of "lies that would never convince any rational person."
It added that the petition "suspiciously" coincided with the efforts by U.S. President George W. Bush's administration to urge the U.N. Security Council to pass a new resolution calling on Syria to establish diplomatic relations and draw its border with Lebanon. The council is expected to pass the resolution this week.
The paper also said in an editorial that those intellectuals have "tried to imply that Syria is threatening Lebanon, and deliberately forgot Israel and its subversive role and nonstop aggression (against Lebanon)."
Relations between Lebanon and Syria plummeted after last year's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many Lebanese blame on Syria. Damascus has denied any involvement.
Two months after Hariri's killing, Syria ended almost three decades of military presence in Lebanon under domestic and international pressure.