Brave Protestors In Syria Call For Freedom

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Yesterday, as the video below shows, hundreds of Syrians braved the retaliation of the forces of President Bashar al-Assad by marching in the streets of Damascus — and also, apparently, in Aleppo — calling on Allah, demanding peace and freedom, and asking why their fellow Syrians were not out on the streets to join them on their self-proclaimed “Day of Rage,” which was inspired by similar “Days of Rage” throughout the Middle East in the past few months. Boldly, they also called for political reform, and for the removal from power of President Bashar al-Assad.

Today (March 16) around 150 protestors took to the streets of Damascus again, although they were soon stopped by the police, who arrested five people. Mainly supporters and relatives of 21 jailed human rights activists, including human rights lawyers Anwar Bunni and Muhannad al-Hassani, as well as engineers, doctors and writers, they had announced plans to lobby Interior Minister Saeed Sammur for the release of the prisoners, in a statement posted on Saturday on the website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In the statement, in which they urged the Syrian authorities to free “prisoners of conscience” and to “stop using the politics of arbitrary detention against political opponents and civil society activists,” they said, “We have decided to give the interior minister next Wednesday at noon a letter outlining our complaints and suffering. After a long wait and rumours of an impending release of prisoners of conscience in Syria, our hopes have vanished.”

Dissent in Syria does not have the momentum of the ocean of protestors in Tahrir Square in Cairo, where, as in Tunisia, the aging bullies of the old regime were outnumbered on an almost unimaginable scale, in part because those marching yesterday not only carried the hopes of many, many others with them, but also their fears.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera five weeks ago, just before the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, said that the biggest obstacle to large-scale protest in Syria was the notorious brutality of the ruling regime.

“First of all, I’d argue that people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Houry explained. “The groups who have mobilized in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price — Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli [PDF] and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in the Massacre of Hama, in February 1982.” On that dreadful occasion, the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama to suppress a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, and murdered at least 20,000 people, and possibly as many as 40,000, in an act described by the author Robin Wright as being possibly “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”

Houry continued, “I think that, in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [i.e. protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”

As Al-Jazeera also noted, “Demonstrations are unlawful under the country’s emergency law, and political activists are regularly detained.” According to the Haitham Maleh Foundation, a Syrian human rights organisation based in Brussels, “There are an estimated 4,500 ‘prisoners of opinion’ in Syrian jails,” which have a bleak reputation. In one of the unlikelier twists of the “War on Terror,” the administration of George W. Bush chose Syria as one of a handful of countries entrusted to torture prisoners on its behalf, and although one of these men — Maher Arar, a joint Syrian/Canadian national — escaped with his life (as did other Canadian citizens picked up and tortured on behalf of the Canadian government), at least ten other prisoners, including teenagers, who were rendered to Syria by the CIA, mostly from Pakistan, and mostly in 2002, have never been heard from again.

Further explanation of the Syrian people’s unwillingness to protest was described by Suhair Atassi, an activist in Damascus, who has a fearlessness that others will need to find if they are to rise up in significant numbers. She told Al-Jazeera, when asked why no anti-government protests had taken place:

Syria has for many years been a “kingdom of silence.” Fear is dominating peoples’ lives, despite poverty, starvation and humiliation … When I was on my way to attend a sit-in against [the monopoly of] Syria’s only mobile phone operators, I explained to the taxi driver where I was going and why.

He told me: “Please organise a demonstration against the high cost of diesel prices. The cold is killing us.” I asked him: “Are you ready to demonstrate with us against the high diesel price?” He replied: “I’m afraid of being arrested because I’m the only breadwinner for my family!”

Although there have been marginal changes for the better — in terms of the freedom of the Syrian people — since the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, when his western-educated son Bashar took over, the emergency laws enacted in 1963, when all opposition parties were banned, are still in place, and just two months ago Human Rights Watch stated that the Syrian authorities were amongst the world’s worst violators of human rights last year, as Reuters explained.

In its report, Human Rights Watch stated that, in 2010, it had received “credible reports” that there had been no fundamental improvement in the human rights situation in Syria, and that “security agencies arbitrarily detained dissidents and criminal suspects, held them incommunicado … and subjected them to ill-treatment and torture.” Researchers had also heard that “At least five detainees died in custody in 2010, with no serious investigations into their deaths by the authorities.” The report also critized Syria for continuing to subject the minority Kurds (who number about 1 million out of a population of 21 million) to “systematic discrimination,” and concluded, “There can be no rule of law in Syria as long as its feared security services remain above the law.” Announcing the report, Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, said, “Syria’s bleak human rights record stood out in a region where bad performers are legion.”

Nevertheless, protests have begun to take place in Syria, despite the ban on public congregations contained in the emergency laws. On February 3, Human Rights Watch reported that a small group of about 15 people, who had been holding a candlelight vigil for Egyptian demonstrators in Bab Touma, Old Damascus, had been set upon by larger group of plainclothes police, and also noted with disapproval that, the day after, Ghassan al-Najjar, the elderly leader of a small group called Islamic Democratic Current, had been arrested and briefly detained after he “had issued public calls … for Syrians in Aleppo to demonstrate to demand more freedoms in their country.”

On February 18, a much larger protest, involving 1,500 people, took place outside the central Hamidiyah souq. Apparently a spontaneous response to the beating of a local shop owner by the police, it nevertheless took on a political tone, when the crowd shouted, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated,” “Shame, shame,” and “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Bashar.” It would have slipped no one’s attention that the revolution in Tunisia was spurred by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizia, a young man who had been humiliated by the police, or that, in Egypt, one of the main inspirations for the revolution was the cold-blooded murder, by the police, of Khaled Said, a businessman who was dragged out of an internet café in Alexandria and killed in the street in June last year.

On February 23, another protest took place in Damascus, when about 200 people staged a peaceful sit-in outside the Libyan embassy to show support for the revolutionaries in Libya, who have dared to take on Colonel Gaddafi. Again risking the escalation of a peaceful event into something far more politically charged, the Syrian authorities responded with violence.

As the Guardian described it, the authorities “warned the group to disperse but they reconvened shortly afterwards in the central neighbouring suburb of Sha’alan. When they tried to march back to the embassy they were met with a heavy police presence” — nearly twice as many police as protestors, according to witnesses — and they were then “punched, kicked and beaten with sticks.” The police also took the names of everyone present, and detained 14 of the protestors, although they were subsequently released. One witness also noted that “at least two women were among those beaten,”  and another said, “They hit two girls, I saw them on the ground crying. There were so many of them [the police], we didn’t know where they all came from.”

Perhaps demonstrating that a politicized form of dissent is beginning to take root in these transgressive gatherings in Syria, the protestors not only carried placards that read, “Down with Gaddafi,” but others with more open-ended messages — for example, “Freedom for the people.” Moreoever, the protestors also chanted slogans that were loaded with specific intent, such as, “Traitors are those that beat their people.”

Just last week, Ribal al-Assad, the director of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria (and a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, who has been in exile in London since 1999), asked, in an article for Al-Jazeera, “Is Syria the next domino?” Noting that Syria’s “secular, militarised dictatorship, [which] most closely resembles the fallen regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, may not be next in line” for revolution, he nevertheless added that it seems “to be approaching a tipping point.”

As he explained:

Most ordinary Syrians face extremely difficult economic and social conditions, including high unemployment, rising food prices, constraints on personal freedom, and endemic corruption. These factors are no different from those that brought people to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East. What began as protests over living conditions became full-scale demands for freedom and democracy.

The regime in Damascus is fearful of similar unrest, as it should be. The best way to avoid a confrontation between the people and the security forces is a process of genuine reform leading to elections and a government of national unity. The ingrained inertia of the current regime, however, seems to preclude any early move toward that.

This certainly appears to be true. Although Ribal al-Assad noted, acidly, that “Syria’s rulers are offering inducements to ensure key constituencies remain in line — laptops for teachers, subsidies for public-sector workers, and empty reformist rhetoric,” elsewhere the regime is responding with typical brutality to the first few flowerings of public protest.

Anas Qtiesh, a a Syrian human rights and anti-censorship activist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained in an article for the Guardian last week that, although the Syrian government recently unblocked Facebook, YouTube, and Blogspot, and “Media outlets close to the Syrian regime raced to proclaim that step as a token of the government’s trust in the people,” the truth was far darker. As he pointed out, “On Valentine’s Day, Syrian blogger Tal al-Mallouhi was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly leaking info to a foreign country, namely the US.”

Qtiesh also mentioned the blogger Ahmad Abu al-Khair, who was arrested on 20 February. Although al-Khair was released after his article was written (and after a week in detention), it was clear that his reported interrogation by military intelligence officials “for posting advice on how to circumvent online censorship and demanding the release of political prisoners in Syria” was intended to send out a clear message to protestors. As Anas Qtiesh put it:

The message from the Syrian government is unmistakable: keep quiet and you will be given the trust to go about your day. A reward of an Orwellian nature, I must say. If, however, you dare to speak up, you will be disappeared faster than you can say “freedom!”

In addition, as the Guardian also explained, many Internet users who “previously used international proxy servers to bypass local firewall restrictions” are now avoiding Facebook, fearing that it is being “closely monitored,” and civil rights campaigners have pointed out that the regime has once more resorted to initimidation, with activists — or potential activists — receiving visits from the feared agents of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s military intelligence service. Some activists have apparently been “warned not to leave the country,” and it is also feared that the regime is engaged in close monitoring of internet and telephone conversations.

Even so, the “Day of Rage” on Tuesday was apparently “organized mostly through a Facebook page, which had nearly 42,000 followers.” Will the regime pursue them all, or is something building up that will be too big to quash before the authorties realize what is happening?

Reinforcing his claim that Syria may indeed be “approaching a tipping point,” Ribal al-Assad sent a message to the cousin he has not seen since 1994 via an interview with Bloomberg last Monday, in which he called on the President to “take steps to liberalize the country’s political system and allow more freedom to prevent the regional turmoil spreading to Syria.” Outlining a number of key points, Ribal al-Assad said that the President should:

  • end the state of emergency, which would be a symbolic and tangible step;
  • call on all political players to come to the table and discuss how to move forward and to form a national unity government;
  • allow all independent political parties who genuinely believe in democracy to be established;
  • release all political prisoners;
  • allow peaceful freedom of expression and association;
  • end media and Internet censorship: and
  • start processes to end state corruption.

“They have to do it, and they have to do it right away,” Ribal al-Assad added, explaining that sweeping changes in the Arab world are “long overdue.” He concluded:

People in that region have been waiting for democracy and freedom a long time, and it was time for this change to happen. We are in the 21st century. People cannot continue as is. You have satellite-television channels, mobile phones and the Internet. You cannot see how the world is advancing and accept to continue living under a dictatorship.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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