Arrests and disappearances have again become rife in Syria as protests against Bashar al-Assad’s rule escalate
In his modest house in a quiet corner of the Syrian capital, Mahmoud offers a nervous welcome – politely asking that mobile phones are left at the door – before sitting on the edge of a gilded chair and launching into his story.
It is a tale that gives some insight into why thousands have dared to take to the streets to protest against Bashar al-Assad’s rule – and why thousands have not.
Mahmoud is one of Syria’s prominent former political prisoners, a bright, thoughtful middle-aged man who spent five years in Adra prison after being arrested in 2001 during a clampdown on free speech.
“It is hard to imagine how I got through it,” he says. “For four years I was in a cell two metres by two metres. Some months went by without sunlight, with no access to books or radio, and no visitors. And all simply because of my opinions.”
During the recent protests, arrests and disappearances have once again become rife. Hundreds have been detained in security cells, with 200 reported missing in the last three days alone, according to human rights monitors. These are in addition to Syria’s ranks of officially sentenced prisoners, estimated to number in the thousands including the heavily repressed Kurds and conservative Muslims who became the focus of state mistrust after an uprising in the 1970s and 80s.
There are writers such as Raghdah Hassan, a novelist locked up for a work about her experience as a former political prisoner; Ali al-Abdullah, a writer and human rights monitor; and Kamal Cheikho, a Kurdish student and blogger. For a month earlier this year, Syria could boast the oldest and youngest political prisoners in the world, from 80-year-old lawyer Haytham al-Maleh, now released, to 19-year old blogger Tal al-Mallouhi.
Many are not treated as well as Mahmoud, who says he was “spared, an exception” because of his prominence. There are well-documented cases of denial of medical treatment and torture – one protester who was detained this month said he was beaten and made to stand up for five days – which result in frequent hunger strikes.
Fury at the continued imprisonment of political prisoners has been one of the key issues in Syria’s growing protest movement. Outrage predates the start of mass protests in the southern city of Deraa, which became the scene of a brutal state crackdown: a week before the first rally there, families of political prisoners gathered in Merjeh Square in Damascus asking for the release of their kin.
One of the most egregious cases is that of an outspoken doctor, Kamal al-Labwani, who is serving 15 years after he was picked up at Damascus airport in 2008 on his return from meetings in the US. His family, who are banned from travel and have been threatened, are allowed to visit him once a week for a supervised half-hour.
Scores of other families suffer similar anguish. One mother says two of her sons have disappeared in the last week: “I have no idea whether they are dead or alive.”
One man recently released from several days’ detention says he was denied permission to make a call home to tell his family he was alive.
“When someone goes to jail they want the family to forget the relative and for everyone to isolate the family too,” says Nour, the neatly dressed and jovial wife of a political prisoner who agrees to meet in a secluded area of Damascus. “We have been threatened both openly and implicitly, by break-ins, and been banned from travelling.”
Her daughter Salma, a university student, says: “I feel like I have no father as he was absent for so much of my childhood. But it is worse than if he were dead.”
Last week the government approved the lifting of emergency law and abolishment of the security court, but an escalating crackdown has left few convinced this will bring about change in a country where the regime’s rule relies predominantly on repression.
“Ordinary and military courts, almost as bad for not respecting fair trial standards, are also used to try opponents and activists,” says Neil Sammonds, of Amnesty International. During a month of protests, human rights groups say, hundreds have been detained; Assad has also ordered some to be freed.
Life after release is not easy. Former political prisoners such as Mahmoud are banned from leaving the country; economic hardship grows. “I find it impossible to work because people are afraid, or ordered not to deal with us,” he says.
Imprisonment has had mixed success at suppressing Syria’s opposition. On their release, many prominent political prisoners joined to create the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, a group of Islamist, liberal and Kurdish opposition figures.
Some members were later re-imprisoned, and the movement has been weakened. But targeted imprisonment cannot control the thousands of apolitical citizens who are leading the uprising against Assad’s Baathist regime.
“I feel joy that people are now speaking out for their dignity,” says Mahmoud. But he and Nour – speaking before the weekend’s violent escalation – fear that if the protesters go home, there will be a clampdown similar to that in the aftermath of the Damascus Spring. “I hope they can push on, and that it causes the release of prisoners including my husband,” says Nour. “But whatever happens, we are proud. Throughout history every society has people who walk ahead and get hit hard.”