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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has urged Syria to free a 78-year old dissident jailed last week after criticizing arbitrary arrests and the 46-year-old state of emergency.
Britain has been among European countries in favour of closer ties with Syria, especially on the security front, despite what British officials describe as their misgivings about Syria's human rights record.
"We regret the detention by the Syrian security services of Haitham Maleh, the prominent human rights defender," a Foreign Office statement said.
"We urge Syrian authorities to release him ... allow its citizens to practice the right of freedom of expression and association without fear of sanction," said the statement, which was issued on Monday.
Human Rights Watch said Syria, which has emerged from isolation by the West and is seeking a peace deal with Israel, cannot expect to be treated as a member of the international community while arbitrarily imprisoning its own citizens.
A former judge, Maleh was awarded the Dutch Geuzen Medal in 2006 for promoting democracy. Banned from leaving Syria, he could not travel to collect the prize, named after Dutch resistance fighters.
Security officers took Maleh last Wednesday to an unknown location and have held him since without allowing him any outside contact, his family and friends said.
A security branch referred Maleh to a military court on Tuesday, which is due to interrogate him on Wednesday. No charges have been filed.
Before his arrest, Maleh told a Syrian opposition television station that "Syria is run by decree. Citizens have no protection from the arbitrary authority and the aggression of the security apparatus."
"The law is not applied except on the weak," he said.
Maleh has repeatedly written to President Bashar al-Assad asking him to end a state of emergency imposed when the ruling Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup and banned all opposition.
Assad has repeatedly made it clear that his priority is to maintain what he describes as national cohesion and promote not political reforms especially when the country is still technically at war with Israel.