Syria sentences 12 for political crimes

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – A Syrian court sentenced 12 dissidents to 2-1/2 years each in prison on Wednesday for political crimes after they had called for democratic reforms.

The 11 men and a woman were arrested after holding a meeting to revive a movement calling for freedom of expression and a democratic constitution in Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath party for four decades.

The charges included “weakening national morale.”

Among the convicted was prominent dissident Riad Seif, who is sick with cancer. The case has drawn criticism from human rights groups and Western governments, including the United States.

President George W. Bush called for Seif’s release in a speech in July.

The sentences were likely to put more strain on Syrian-U.S. ties which were damaged this week by a U.S. military raid on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq.

Syria says the raid killed eight civilians while a U.S. official said it was believed to have killed a smuggler of foreign fighters into Iraq.

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