A Syrian court on Tuesday sentenced a prominent human rights lawyer Anwar Bunni to five years in prison on charges of disseminating hostile information. Mr Bunni was arrested almost a year ago along with other activists who had signed a declaration criticising their government’s policy in neighbouring Lebanon.

The verdict coincides with a visit of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to Damascus to discuss Lebanon. Mr Ban tried to overcome Syria’s opposition to a UN proposed international tribunal to judge the suspects in the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

The tribunal is a major point of contention between Lebanon’s anti-Syrian government, which has approved it, and the largely pro-Syrian opposition. The UN is in the process of evaluating if and how to set up the tribunal if the Lebanese parties fail to agree among themselves.

An ongoing UN investigation has implicated senior Syrian officials in the assassination but Damascus denies involvement.

Syria’s human rights association, of which Mr Bunni is a member, condemned the verdict. Mr Bunni said: “I didn’t commit any crime. This sentence is to shut me up and to stop the effort to expose human rights violations in Syria.”

Two other activists who were arrested along with Mr Bunni, writer Michel Kilo and communist Mahmoud Issa, are still awaiting sentencing.

Mr Bunni briefly headed a human rights centre in Damascus that was set up with support from the European Union and a Belgian NGO. The centre was closed in March last year, just one month after having opened. The verdict against Mr Bunni also included the charge of “affiliation with an unlicensed political association that has an international nature” and “contacting a foreign country”.

The verdict comes one day after the conclusion of parliamentary elections in Syria that were described as a “farce” by the country’s opposition. Turnout was reported to have been very low. Parliament is largely powerless and more than two-thirds of the seats are reserved for the ruling Baath party and its allies.

The US state department called the jailing of Bunni a ”sad commentary” on the state of political freedoms under president Bashar al-Assad.

Syria regularly cracks down on dissent. Human rights organisations have called the wave of arrests over the last 12 months the most severe since Mr Assad inherited the title from his father Hafez al-Assad seven years ago.

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