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A Syrian who downloaded and distributed material from a website banned by Syrian authorities has been jailed for two-and-a-half years.

Abdel Rahman al-Shaghouri, 32, who had been held since his arrest in February 2003 apparently without access to family or legal representation, was convicted of "publishing false news that saps the morale of the nation".

The Human Rights Association of Syria has called for Shaghouri's immediate release and condemned his imprisonment as "a dangerous precedent against Internet users and another step back". Amnesty International agrees - and is highlighting the cases of four other men held on similar charges.

Muhammed and Haytham Qutaysh and Yahia al-Aws face trial in July on charges of "sending false information abroad to an electronic newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates". The fourth detainee, Masoud Hamid, posted pictures of a Kurdish demonstration in Damascus on the Web and was duly incarcerated in July last year.

Syria has relaxed rules on using mobile phones and the Internet, since president Bashar Assad came power four years ago, according to the BBC. Indeed, he once headed the Syrian Computer Association and is "known for his enthusiasm for new technology".

But the country still exercises tight control over Net access, regularly banning "offensive or anti-Syrian" websites. ®

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