A Decade of failed hope

Caspian Weekly, August 24th  2010

Written by Nir BOMS

Ten years ago, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad replaced his father as president. It was a moment of hope for many in Syria. One of those who rejoiced was Ali Abdullah, a writer, activist, and partner to the Damascus Declaration, a process that produced a document calling for political reform and an end to the emergency law. But in 2007 Abdullah was arrested along with 40 others who signed the declaration. After two-and-a-half years in prison, coinciding with the festivities celebrating Assad’s first decade in power, Abdullah was brought up on additional charges. Abdullah must now appear before a military court as a result of statements he made from prison about Lebanese-Syrian relations and electoral fraud committed by the Iranian government.

In a very different form of marking ten years of the Syrian Regime, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published an open letter detailing Press and Internet freedom violations in Syria. Joel Simon, Executive Director of the CPJ, reminded Bashar Al-Assad that in his constitutional oath, a decade ago, the President said that “constructive criticism” is a central pillar of developing Syria. In 2007, when Assad was sworn in for his second term, he noted that the success of reform is linked with “providing citizens with the correct information.”

But this did not help Abdullah. Nor did it help Bassam Ali and Suhaila Ismail who both face a military trail for defamation. Their crime? In two reports that they co-authored in 2005 and 2006, Ali and Ismail concluded that almost 2 billion Syrian pounds (U.S. $43 million) associated with the Public Company for Fertilizers in Syria were misappropriated in one year. This revelation is likely to send them to prison.

Mohannad Al-Hassani, a human rights lawyer and President of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights “Sawasiya” could further comment on this form Syrian justice. But speaking has become more difficult for him since his arrest and imprisonment on the grounds of “encouraging racist and sectarian feelings” and “transferring false news that weaken national sentiments.” One of his lawyers, 79-year-old Haytham El-Maleh, a founding member and former Director of the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS), is also in prison because of similar charges. Maleh had already spent six years in prison for his political beliefs. Now, with advance diabetes, he just hopes to be able to speak again.

Suhair Atassi, one of Syria’s most prominent democratic dissidents is also packing her bag for prison. The 37-year-old single mother was given an ultimatum by General Zuhair al Hamad, the head of Syrian State security: either shut down her Facebook discussion forum or face two-and-a-half years in prison. Shortly after Assad’s rise to power, in 2000, Suhair established Montada al Atassi, a discussion forum for democratic debate. Atassi was forced to close the forum in 2005, but two months ago the discussion forum was revived on the Internet and on Faceboook. Last week, she was summoned and interrogated for the fourth time. Her personal ID card was confiscated and she was given the ultimatum. She chose not to comply.

As a decade comes to an end, Syria is ranked 165 out of 175 countries in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. Assad is regarded as one of the world’s 40 worst “Predators of press freedom” and his country is proudly featured in the organization’s “Enemies of the Internet” list.

In a rare public opinion survey released earlier this month, the voice of the Syrian public was brought to light. Professor Angela Hawken of Pepperdine University interviewed 1,046 Syrians over a three-week period. The survey results were not surprising. A majority of Syrians believe that the political and economic situation in Syria is poor and that it is worse than it was five years ago. Most Syrians have little faith in Assad’s ability to confront the country’s problems and a substantial majority believes that corruption is widespread and calls for the end of emergency laws in the country.

The US has not taken a public position on these issues – but it’s Embassy in Damascus did find time to facilitate a visit of a New York-based hip hop group and to organize a series of performances by Malek Jandali, a renowned Syrian-American concert pianist. Music is good – but perhaps a different concert is needed.

As Assad’s regime enters its second decade, the U.S. and other missions need to publicly call for the release of Syria’s political prisoners. The incoming U.S. Ambassador to Syria, a post that was vacant for the past five years, should not remain silent in face of Syria’s human rights violations. The next decade ought to be different.

Nir Boms is the Co-Founder of CyberDissidents.org

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