Syrians wonder why springtime turned to winter as the Assad promise fades
Mona Eltahawy

Syrians wonder why springtime turned to winter as the Assad promise fades
By Mona Eltahawy
Saturday, 12 May 2007
The first time I met Anwar Al Bunni, in June 2005, one of Syria’s numerous State-owned newspapers had just called him a traitor.

Over tea, that he made for us himself, and endless cigarettes that he smoked as furiously as he defended human rights, Bunni explained that his presence across the desk from me in the office from which he defended countless Syrians who dared stand up to their regime, was proof that Syria had changed. His own family had paid dearly for its opposition to the regime – two brothers had spent a total of almost 30 years in prison.

That newspaper, sold ironically enough in a newsstand right under his office, had called Bunni a traitor on its front page because he had urged the European Union not to sign a trade agreement with Syria until it received guarantees from the Syrian government that it would respect human rights.

In the old Syria (that of Hafez Al Assad), Bunni told me, he would have been bundled into a car in broad daylight and taken to a jail cell somewhere. But Syria was changing, Bunni said. It had opened up to the world through the Internet; it had a younger president in Bashar Al Assad, a son Hafez; and Bunni himself could reach audiences through appearances on pan-Arab satellite television channels. 

But less than a year after I met him, Bunni was indeed bundled into a car in broad daylight and thrown into a jail cell after he had signed a petition calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations. After almost a year in jail, he was finally put on trial on charges of spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale, affiliating with an unlicensed political association with an international nature, discrediting state institutions and contacting a foreign country. In April, he was sentenced to five years in jail.

Then, on May 10, dissident Kamal Al Labwani was sentenced to 12 years in prison for contacting a foreign nation for the purpose of instigating attacks against Syria. He was arrested in November 2005 after returning from a trip to the United States where he met with senior officials to discuss human rights in his country.

So much for the new Syria.

On Monday May 7, a judge adjourned until May 13 the trial of two other Syrians arrested after they had signed the same petition that landed Bunni in trouble. Writer Michel Kilo and human rights activist Mahmoud Issa were arrested separately last year and charged with weakening national feeling, fomenting sectarian rifts and spreading false information. If convicted, each faces up to three years in prison. Those charges are anything but new of course. They have about them the stale stench of totalitarianism that never really left Syria, despite the ascension of the younger Assad to the presidency.

Shout: freedom

Bunni wasn’t the only who thought things were changing. That same June in 2005 when I first met Bunni in Damascus, Kilo told me that he too believed Bashar Al Assad’s Syria was a different country than the one his father ruled. He explained how the atmosphere of intimidation under Assad senior was such that when jailed for three years for anti-regime views, just two of the hundreds of people Kilo knew plucked up the courage to visit his wife and children to see how they were doing. Many others were simply too scared to be seen visiting the home of a political prisoner.

“Now, if a water melon vendor is jailed in Syria, thousands of us would be shouting for his freedom,” Kilo told me.

All in all, 10 Syrians were arrested for signing that petition on Syrian-Lebanese relations. Lebanon is a sore subject for the Syrian regime because its opponents there blame it for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus denies it had anything to do with it. But the uproar that followed Hariri’s assassination forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon, ending a 29-year presence there. Syria has also come under pressure from the United States, which accuses it of allowing fighters to cross its long border with Iraq.

Far from being a new kind of leader, Assad has resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the dictator’s book of how to run a country: when under international pressure, squeeze your opponents at home because your international critics are too big to take on. The day that Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison was also the day that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Damascus to discuss the UN investigation into Hariri’s assassination.

What follows springtime?

During that June 2005 Damascus visit, I dearly wished I could interview Aref Dalila, an outspoken economist whose brilliant mind and passionate denouncements of state corruption were one of the highlights of my first trip to his country in 1999. That initial visit was during the twilight years of Hafez Al Assad.

When Assad the father died and the son took over in 2000, Dalila’s criticisms were at first tolerated during a time that became known as the Damascus Spring. Dissidents became bolder in their testing of the State’s limits as Assad junior seemed to indicate he was indeed contemplating a more open future for the country he’d inherited.

But those spring blossoms didn’t last for long. Dalila and several others were jailed for signing a petition calling for political change. Although some of the other dissidents thrown behind bars along with him have since been freed, Dalila remains in jail. He has spent six years in solitary confinement. His outspokenness was especially stinging because like the Assads, he too belongs to the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

But there it is again – the fate of acting on the belief that Syria was changing.

The lives of patriots

Assad junior does not preside over a new Syria. Instead, as the travails of Bunni, Kilo, Dalila and their fellow political prisoners show, his Syria is as sadly familiar as the communist East Germany depicted in the Oscar-winning film “The Lives of Others”. That film’s heartrending portrayal of the intimidation the Stasi visited upon East Germans who stood up to the regime, the courage of opponents and the price they paid, is reflective of the reality in Syria today. 

A police state always accuses its critics of being unpatriotic. However, Bunni, Kilo, Dalila and the countless other Syrians jailed for their views are the best definition of patriots for so selflessly risking their lives and freedom to speak out for a better Syria and for the sake of all critics of the government. A letter they smuggled out of prison just days after Bunni was convicted deserves to be read over and over for its astounding determination not to be silenced:

“Tens of thousands of Syrians have paid a horrible price, some with their lives, others with the loss of years and youth from inhumane prison conditions and cruel torture. Still more have suffered by being forced to escape the tyranny or enter into voluntary exile, another difficult experience. Other Syrians stayed, throwing salt on their wounds and binding their tongues to save themselves pain. Those that couldn’t live with their tongues tied faced a future in prison, homeless and alone,” said the letter signed by Bunni, Kilo and others.

“The denial of fundamental human rights in Syria is the main case that we work for and your support for prisoners of conscience is part of this fight. Fighting for the release of these prisoners is a duty, not only to decrease their suffering and their families’ pain, but also to encourage others by knowing they are not alone. We must give society hope, making sure its doors and streets are not closed. With the power of hope it is possible to fight the crisis of freedom and human rights in Syria in a peaceful way,” they said.

Bunni, Kilo et al are so dangerous to the Syrian regime because, as their letter makes clear, they want to change Syria peacefully, rejecting terrorism and violence. But they fully appreciate and warn about the fertile land for terrorism that totalitarian states become:

“Terrorism is the enemy of mankind and civilization itself. It flourishes in societies that lack freedom and close doors to peaceful expression, leaving violence as a way of expressing oneself,” they said. “The lack of basic freedoms and human rights coupled with poverty are two faces of the same coin in the Third World. Syria is at the forefront of totalitarian countries, ruled from an isolated point of view with its citizens either idle passengers or doomed to be labeled traitors,” they wrote.

“Addressing the root causes of terrorism requires opening up pathways to free expression and the peaceful exchange of ideas. By giving people unfettered freedom we can blunt the sword of injustice, oppression and domination to grant full political participation, a hand in future decision-making, accountability, the preservation of equality and a life of dignity. This would make the world a safer place and improve international security,” the prisoners wrote.

Trouble for dictators

It is a shame that the Syrian regime would keep the authors of such wise words behind bars at a time when those who advocate violence seem to have the loudest voices in the Middle East. When such great minds and courageous hearts are imprisoned, who is left to keep up the tenacious fight to keep a dictator’s conscience troubled?

But as Bunni, Kilo and their fellows remind us, real change in Syria and its sister totalitarian states in the Middle East will come at a price that many more of us who fight for freedom, democracy and choice must be willing to pay.

“Syrians have paid a high price for their rights and freedom and we hope to be the last group forced to pay this price to help the great Syrian people. To do this we need more than your solidarity and denunciations. We need constant and tireless efforts to compel Syrian authorities to respect human rights, international law and the treaties and agreements it has signed which demand freedom of expression and opinion,” the letter reminded us.

“As prisoners of conscience and opinion we are apprehensive about the future of our homeland, our children and our very decision to shape Syria’s future. However, we will not be deterred by threats, intimidation, and the repression of long years of imprisonment that we face to save our country and ourselves,” the prisoners wrote.

It was that determination to speak out for freedom that brought down the Berlin War and dismantled East Germany and its feared Stasi. It is that same determination that we must continue to cultivate and nurture, tirelessly, for the sake of Bunni, Kilo and all the prisoners of conscience in the Middle East.