Syrian regime releases journalist Mazen Darwish

Darwish was arrested on February 16, 2012 along with Hani Zaitani and Hussein Ghreir, his colleagues at the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression

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Syrian authorities on Monday released a prominent human rights activist who spent more than three years in prison for reporting on the government's crackdown on protesters in the early days of the uprising against President Bashar Assad, activists said.

The release of Mazen Darwish appeared to be a goodwill gesture by Assad, whose government continues to hold thousands of political prisoners, according to human rights groups.

Darwish was the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression when he was arrested in February 2012 in a Damascus security raid, along with two of his colleagues. The organization confirmed his release on Monday but said he is still standing trial and is scheduled to attend a court hearing on Aug. 30.

"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. It said his release followed an amnesty issued last month by Assad that supposedly covered his case.

Darwish was an outspoken critic of the government's crackdown on protests that erupted against Assad's rule in March 2011. He was one of the rare journalists who dared publish details of arbitrary arrests and violations by policy and security forces and became a symbol of the battle for human rights in Syria following his detention.

He has been standing trial on charges of "promoting terrorist acts."

"This is a good step," said Mahmoud Merei, who heads the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Speaking by telephone from the Syrian capital Damascus, Merei said "political detention should end in Syria and we hope that this decision will be followed by similar ones."

What began as an Arab Spring-style uprising against Assad's rule became a full-blown civil war in Syria. The conflict, now in its fifth year, has killed at least 250,000 people and wounded more than a million, according to the United Nations.

International human rights and press freedoms organizations, including the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have long called on the Syrian government to release Darwish. The United Nations also called for his release.

In February, 71 human rights groups called on the Syrian government to immediately free Darwish and his colleagues Hani al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir. The joint statement came on the third anniversary of their arrest.

At the time, it described Darwish's trial as "nothing more than a sham and a deep miscarriage of justice."

In April, Darwish won the UNESCO's World Press Freedom Prize in recognition of the work that he has carried out in Syria "for more than 10 years at great personal sacrifice, enduring a travel ban, harassment, as well as repeated detention and torture."

In October 2014, Indian-born author Salman Rushdie shared the 2014 PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage Award with Darwish. According to the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, Darwish is also the winner of the Reporters Without Borders award in 2013.

Darwish's release was confirmed by other rights groups, including the Violations and Documentation Center and the Assyrian Network for Human Rights.

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