Political Prisoners In Syria: An Urgent Crisis Now! – OpEd


On March 16, around 50 demonstrators — including human rights activists, former political prisoners and the families of curent political prisoners — were arrested in Damascus after a non-violent demonstration in which, as part of a group of about 150 protestors in total (a significant gathering in Syria, where all political dissent is illegal), they called for the release of 21 political prisoners.

Eight of these demonstrators were freed, but 32 were subsequently charged with “attacking the reputation of the state, provoking racism and sectarianism and damaging relations between Syrians,” and the whereabouts of ten others have not been accounted for.

As a result, I thought it might be useful to make available some information about these 71 men and women, many of whom are well-known human rights activists in Syria, to raise awarness not only of their plight, but also that of the estimated 4,500 political prisoners, or “prisoners of conscience” in Syria.

These prisoners include Kurds, religious leaders, trade unionists and students, and their detention, in such large numbers, reveals how, for nearly 50 years, the Ba’athist regime in Syria has suppressed all dissent through emergency laws passed in 1963, which essentially created a vast police state, in which an unaccountable security court hands down punitive sentences on charges that seem to have been taken from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984, and frequently condemns critics of the regime to torture and abuse in Syria’s many notorious torture prisons.

My findings are published below, although I freely admit that, despite my best attempts at research, there are gaps in my knowledge, and I invite anyone with more detailed information to contact me so I can make it more comprehensive.

The list of those detained on March 16 came from three sources — a Facebook page and the website of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), published immediately after the arrests, and the website of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), after the 32 protestors were charged. Also useful was the blogger Zeinobia, who is well worth following. For the 21 political prisoners on whose behalf the protest on March 16 was called, the only useful list I found was here (and I could only confirm 20 names, rather than 21).

At the end of this article, I also provide some names and stories from another report, by Amnesty International, relating to dozens more prisoners seized by the Syrian security services between March 8 and 23, in various towns ands cties throughout Syria.

The 20 political prisoners whose release was called for on March 16, 2011

1. Kamal al-Labwani
A Kurdish doctor and artist, and the founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, Kamal al-Labwani is considered one of the most prominent members of the Syrian opposition movement, but is imprisoned in Adra prison, near Damascus, serving a 15-year prison sentence. On May 10, 2007, he was given a 12-year sentence for “scheming with a foreign country, or communicating with one with the aim of causing it to attack Syria,” following visits to Europe and the USA in 2005 “where he met human rights organisations and government officials and called for peaceful democratic reform in Syria,” and on April 23, 2008, as Amnesty International explained, the First Military Court in Damascus found him guilty of “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country,” and added another three years’ imprisonment to the 12-year term he was already serving. Alarmingly, the new charge “was based on the testimony of prisoners in the same cell, who claimed he had criticised the authorities when he returned to his cell from a trial hearing in May 2007.” In March 2009, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention deemed al-Labwani’s imprisonment to be arbitrary, and he is currently on a hunger strike.

2. Ali al-Abdallah
On March 13, 2011, a military court sentenced al-Abdallah, a human rights activist,  to 18 months in prison, based on allegations that he made critical comments against Iran, thereby “harming Syria’s relations with a foreign country.” An outspoken member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, al-Abdallah is no stranger to prison, having previously served a 30-month sentence for his criticisms of the Syrian government in the group’s 2005 declaration, signed by around 300 Syrian and Lebanese activists, which called for Syria’s transition to a democratic nation and improved relations with Lebanon, including complying with UN resolutions by demarcating the border, setting up an embassy in Beirut and recognizing Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. Other members of the group to be imprisoned include former parliamentarian Riyad Sayf, arrested in January 2008, and writer and activist Michel Kilo, who was arrested after signing the group’s “Damascus Declaration,” and sentenced to a prison term of three years for “speaking false news, weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian sentiments.”

3. Mahmoud Barish
A Kurd, he faces a trial for criticizing government corruption, and is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

4. Muhannad al-Hassani
On July 28, 2009, State Security detained Muhannad al-Hassani (aka al-Hasani), the Kurdish president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Swasiah), and two days later an investigating judge charged him with “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated information” in connection with his monitoring of the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), the exceptional court, with almost no procedural guarantees, that is responsible for trying and sentencing political prisoners. On November 10, 2009, the Syrian Bar Association issued a decision to permanently disbar him, and on June 23 2010, the SSSC gave him a three-year sentence. He is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

5. Hassan Saleh
A senior member of the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria, Saleh was arrested on December 26, 2009 with two other senior party members, Ma’rouf Mulla Ahmed and Muhammad Ahmed Mustafa, and all three were charged with “aiming at separating part of the Syrian lands” and “joining an international political or social organization,” apparently after calling for the Kurdish areas of Syria to be granted autonomy during their party’s conference on December 3, 2009. They were held incommunicado for 14 months until February 2011, when they received their first and only family visit, and they are curently boycotting their ongoing trials, in part because they are not allowed access to their legal counsel.

6. Nizar Ristnawi
A member of the Committee to Defend Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights in Syria and a founding member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, Nizar Ristnawi was arrested in Hamah city on April 18, 2005, and held in incommunicado detention, without contact with the outside world including his family and lawyers, for four months. He was allegedly ill-treated during this period. In November 2005 he was officially charged and brought to trial before the Supreme State Security Court, and on November 18, 2006, was sentenced to four years in prison for “spreading false news that could weaken the spirit of the nation” and “insulting the President of the Republic.” In March 2009, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared his detention to be arbitrary.

7. Tohama Maarouf
An artist, cyberactivist and mother of two children, she is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison, where she is serving a one-year sentence, in protest at the “inhuman conditions” in which she is held.

8. Anwar Bunni
A human rights lawyer and activist, Bunni was arrested in May 2006 along with ten others, including Michel Kilo, after signing the “Damascus Declaration.” In April 2007, he was sentenced to five years in jail and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine for “weakening the morale of the nation.”

9. Maher Asper
One of seven young men (between 25 and 34 years of age), who were detained between January and March 2006 after developing a youth discussion group and publishing certain articles online that were critical of the Syrian authorities, Asper (also identified as Maher Ibrahim) and Tarek Ghorani (see below) were given seven-year sentences for “taking action or making a written statement that could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country” after what Amnesty International described as “an unfair trial.” The other five men — Husam Ali Mulhim, Ayham Saqr, Alam Fakhour, Omar Ali al-Abdullah and Diab Sirieyeh –received five years each, even though all seven defendants denied the charges and stated that the “confessions” used in the trial had been extracted under torture. They are held in Saydnaya Military Prison, near Damascus, where conditions are harsh.

10. Raghda Hassan
On February 10, 2010, Syrian activist and former political prisoner Raghda Hassan (aka al-Hassan) was arrested as she was heading to Lebanon. The Syrian security services later raided her house in the city of Tartous, and confiscated her laptop and the draft  of an unpublished novel that she wrote about her life in Syrian prisons. Hassan is married to a Palestinian and has two children. She was in prison from 1993 to 1995 on charges of belonging to the Communist Party in Syria.

11. Mesh’al al-Tammo
A spokesperson for the Kurdish Future Movement in Syria, he was given a three-and-a-half year sentence on May 11, 2009 for “weakening national sentiments” and “broadcasting false information.” He is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

12. Habib al-Saleh
A Kurd, he is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

13. Asaad Hilal
A 61-year-old bookshop owner from Saraqeb in the northwestern Syrian province of Idleb, Hilal was imprisoned in 1980 because he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. On January 2 this year, he was taken into custody in Idleb after repeated requests by military intelligence, which had apparently been investigating his fundraising activities, although his supporters stated that he had been “raising money for distribution to the needy.”

14. Tarek Ghorani
Like Maher Asper above, Ghorani is one of seven young men (between 25 and 34 years of age), who were detained between January and March 2006 after developing a youth discussion group and publishing certain articles online that were critical of the Syrian authorities, Asper (also identified as Maher Ibrahim) and Tarek Ghorani were given seven year sentences for “taking action or making a written statement that could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country” after what Amnesty International described as “an unfair trial.”

15. Khaled Massry

16. Osama Haj Sleiman

17. Adan Zeitoun

18. Khalaf Mohamad Hussein

19. Ahmad Mohamed Bakir

20. Ammar Talawi

The 50 political prisoners held as a result of the protest on March 16

The first eight were released on the actual day of the protest, and 32 of the remaining 42 were charged the day after. There has, as yet, been no mention whatsoever about the whereabouts of the other ten — including a 10-year old boy — whose arrests or abductions were also noted on the day of the protest.

(i) The eight prisoners released

1. Mazen Darwish
Human rights activist, and Director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)

2. Tayeb Tizini
69 years old, Tizini is a celebrated author and Professor of Politics at Damascus University

3. Hassiba Abdel-Rahman
Former prisoner of conscience, jailed in 1979, 1986 and 1992 for having belonged to the “Labor Party of Syria” and for meeting members of Amnesty International

4. Yassin al-Labwani
A relative of Kamal al-Labwani (also see below)

5. Maimouna Alammar

6. Amer Daoud (aka Ammar Dawood)

7. Kaka Daoud (aka Ricardo Dawood)
The son of Amer Daoud/Ammar Dawood

8. Esmail al-Khateb (aka Ismail Khatib)

(ii) The 32 prisoners charged

1. ‎Omar al-Labwani
Son of prisoner of conscience Kamal al-Labwani (see 1, above)

2. Riba al-Labwani
Also a relative of Kamal al-Labwani

3. Laila al-Labwani
Also a relative of Kamal al-Labwani

4. Ammar al-Labwani
Also a relative of Kamal al-Labwani

5. Siba Hafiz Hassan
A relative of prisoner of conscience Raghda Hassan (see 10, above)

6. Sereen Khouri
Human rights activist

7. Nahed Badawiya
Badawiya, a former prisoner of conscience, was detained by the Syrian authorities in May 2005 as a member of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum, a political discussion group, after one of the Forum members, Ali al-Abdallah (see above), read a statement by the exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Syria, which called for political reform. She was also threatened with the expulsion of her husband, Salama Kayla, a Palestinian journalist, and a prisoner of conscience from 1992 to 2000, imprisoned on charges of “opposing the objectives of the revolution,” who has lived in Syria for 25 years. In June 2005, the Political Security department reportedly gave instructions at all Syrian border points to deny Kayla re-entry to the country so that he was unable to travel to France for a yearly check-up for leukaemia at a Paris hospital.

8. Kamal Cheikho (aka Sheikho)
A Kurdish literature student, blogger and human rights defender who formerly worked with the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, and subsequently became active in defending human rights independently, Cheikho is also a former prisoner of conscience. Imprisoned last summer on charges of “spreading false information that could debilitate the morale of the nation,” he was released on bail of 500 Syrian pounds (around $10) on March 3. He vehemently denies the charges against him and had begun a hunger strike on February 16 in protest against his detention. His next hearing is scheduled for March 28.

9. Suhair Atassi
A human rights activist, living in Damascus, she runs the Jamal Atassi Forum group on Facebook, an extension of the banned Jamal Atassi Forum. The forum calls for political reforms in Syria and the reinstatement of civil rights and the cancellation of the emergency law that has suspended constitutional rights since 1963. See here for an excellent interview Al-Jazeera conducted with Atassi last month.

10. Abd Al-Hamid al-Tammo (aka Abdul al-Razzaq al-Temmo)
Brother of prisoner of conscience Mesh’al al-Tammo (see 11, above)

11. Adel Al-Bunni
A son of prisoner of conscience Anwar Bunni (see 8, above)

12. Fahima Herveen Saleh Awsi
A member of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights (acting as a monitor)

13. Naret Ibrahim Abdul Karim

14. Badr Eddin al-Shallash

15. Mohamed Osama Nassar

16. Zokan Naoufal (aka Nofal)

17. Bisher Jawdat Saeed

18. Saad Jawdat Saeed

19. Ghaffar Hikmat Muhammad

20. Dana Ibrahim al-Jawabra

21. Wafa Mohamed al-Lahham

22. Nabil Walij Shurbaji

23. Rayan Kamal Suleyman

24. Daya al-Din Daghmoush (aka Dia Eldin Doghmosh)

25. Nasredin Ahmou (aka Nasr Eddin Fakhr Eddin Ahmi)

26. Ali Abdul Rahman al-Muqdad

27. Shaher al-Warea

28. Hisham Khalid al-Droubi

29. Mohammad Hassan al-Khalil

30. Nisreen Khalid Hasan

31. Fahed al-Bassam al-Yimani

32. Mudar al-Asimi

(iii) The 10 prisoners whose whereabouts are unknown

1. Hussein al-Labwani
Another relative of prisoner of conscience Kamal al-Labwani (see 1, above)

2. Hannibal al-Hassan (aka Hanibal Awad)
The 10-year old son of Raghda Hassan (see 10, above)

3. Mahmoud Ghorani
A relative of prisoner of conscience Tarek Ghorani (see 14, above)

4. Bara Kellizy (aka Bara’ah Kalziyeh, Bara Kellizin)

5. Mohammad Adib Matar

6. Mohammad Darwish

7. Mohamad Mounir Alfakeer (aka Mohammad Munir al-Fakir)

8. Mohamad al-Khateb (aka al-Katib)

9. Abdul Rahman Khitou (aka Kheto)

10. Wissam Tarif

Other prisoners included in an urgent action issued by Amnesty International

On March 23, Amnesty International released an urgent action, regarding at least 93 people — including five women and at least 12 children under the age of 18, and consisting of school and university students, journalists, intellectuals and political activists — who were arrested by the Syrian security forces between March 8 and 23 in Aleppo, Banias, Damascus, Dera’a, Douma, Hama, Homs, Latakia, Ma’aratan Nu’man and al-Malkiyah, and whose places of detention are unknown, raising fears that they, like many of those listed above, are at risk of torture. This is in spite of the fact that many of those held “are likely to be prisoners of conscience, held merely for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression and association by peacefully supporting or taking part in protests.” Amnesty also noted, “The real number of those arrested is likely to be considerably higher. According to one Syrian human rights organization, around 300 people had been arrested in Dera’a [alone] in the five days up to and including 22 March.”

Prisoners listed by Amnesty, excluding those arrested in Damascus on March 16, are as follows:

University students Abdullah Mas’oud, Adham Bittar, Wissam Bdiwi, Hassan al-Homsi, Shahem al-Yousefi and Manhal Shahni. They were all arrested on 8 March from their homes in the town of Ma’aratan Nu’man, apparently for calling for anti- government protests on Facebook.

Seventeen-year-old high school students Azo Sriyoul, Yasser Ibrahim, Amjad al-Samadi and Ahmed Majed al-Saydawi were all arrested on 11 March from their high school in Douma, near Damascus, for writing anti-government slogans on the wall.

Marwa al-Ghemyan, a 17-year-old female student, was one of a group of at least 11 people who were arrested on 15 March for taking part in a small peaceful demonstration that was held in Damascus.

Nasr Sa’id was arrested on 16 March when he responded to a summons from the State Security branch in the coastal city of Latakia, apparently for distributing brochures calling for democratic change.

Hussein Mustafa Ali, aged 25, is suspected to have been arrested on 18 March possibly for taking part in a protest that was held in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus that day. According to his family, they have not heard from him since that day and his mobile is turned off. They did, however, see a glimpse of him on one of the protest videos posted on YouTube. As far as Amnesty International is aware at least 10 other men were also arrested that day from the Umayyad Mosque.

Issa Masalmeh was arrested from his home in Dera’a on 21 March. He is a leading member of an unauthorized opposition party, the Arab Socialist Union.

Mus’ab Sheikh Amin, aged 14, Rafe’ Abu Ghaloun, aged 16, ‘Abdullah Amin, aged 17, and Saleh Abu Ghaloun, aged 18, were all arrested on 22 March by Military Security in the northern city of Aleppo apparently for attempting to demonstrate in support of the protests in Dera’a. According to Mus’ab Sheikh Amin’s family, when they saw him with Military Security officers who brought him to his home to search it, his hands and legs were badly injured and his clothes were bloodied. Reportedly, the families of the four were thrown out of the Military Security branch in Aleppo when they attempted to ask for the whereabouts of their sons.

Lo’ay Hussein, a writer and journalist, was arrested from his home near Damascus on 22 March apparently for publishing on the internet a petition in solidarity with protestors in Dera’a and calling for the Syrian people’s right to peacefully expressing their opinions.

To write to the Syrian government demanding the release of all political prisoners, including all those named in this article, please use the addresses and contact details below:

Bashar al-Assad
Presidential Palace
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 3410

Minister of Interior
Major Sa’id Mohamed Samour
Ministry of Interior
Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 222 3428

And copies to:
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Walid al-Mu’allim
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 214 6251

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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