A Dissident in Paris

Jan. 17, 2004

By NIR BOMS & ERICK STAKELBECK

Nizar Nayouf has not only seen hell, he has even lived to tell about it. Barely.

Just 41 years old, Nayouf suffers from permanent spinal injuries, a failing left kidney, a bleeding gastric ulcer, and deteriorating eyesight. He also has paralysis in his lower extremities and unsightly disfigurements caused by cigarette burns that were anything but accidental.

The source of Nayouf’s ailments, and the scene of his own personal hell, was Syria’s Palestine Prison, which is run by the Syrian Intelligence Service or “Mukhabarat,” famous for its unrelenting cruelty.

His crime? Founding a human rights organization and speaking out against a Ba’athist regime that has held Syria in a totalitarian grip for four decades.

Despite his injuries Nayouf, an award-winning journalist, poet and human rights activist, remains committed to the cause that has guided his life for two decades: promoting a free and democratic Syria. Only now Nayouf has a new and surprisingly inhospitable base for his pro-democracy activities: Paris.

Nayouf was granted political asylum in France in July 2002 and fully expected his vocal opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime to be welcomed by his new hosts. After all, it was former French prime minister Lionel Jospin who, in 2001, urged Assad to release Nayouf so he could receive proper medical attention in France.

Assad, eager to strengthen Syria’s European ties, quickly consented. But after a promising start, Nayouf’s French experience quickly turned sour.

Despite repeated requests by Nayouf during the last 18 months, the French government has refused to grant him access to official documents that would allow him to travel freely and continue his human rights work. Moreover, upon asking French authorities last month for the political refugee passport he was legally granted in 2002 (and is due to him by French law), Nayouf was denied yet again and told, much to his surprise, that he “already had” a Syrian passport.

Agnes Vondermull, an official at the French Embassy in Washington, DC, said last month that Nayouf had been asked to turn his Syrian passport over to French authorities in 2002 but refused to do so. But Vondermull admitted that a refugee does not need such a passport to begin with, and that the two issues should not be connected.

In any case, Nayouf has an official document issued by French police stating that his Syrian passport has been missing since December 2002. It would appear, then, that there must be another reason behind Nayouf’s bureaucratic nightmare.

THIS PAST November, according to Syrian sources, Ba’ath party official Haitham Manaa’- in a calculated effort to restrict the movement of Syrian opposition leaders – falsely informed French authorities that all Syrians living in France had been granted Syrian passports. The French government’s apparent decision to follow Manaa’s guidelines has enabled Assad’s regime to successfully inhibit the physical movement of some of its most outspoken opponents.

As a result, Nayouf remains confined to Paris, denied permission to attend Syrian human rights conferences, where he has often been invited as a featured speaker. Most recently he was unable to attend a November conference of Syrian democracy advocates in Washington, D.C. that spawned a fledgling Syrian Democratic Coalition led by the Syrian-born Farid Ghadry.

Nayouf says he was “advised” by French police not to attend the conference and speak out against the Ba’ath Party. According to Basheer Bakr, a journalist from the newspaper Al-Hayat, a senior French official confirmed that his government did not want Nayouf participating in the conference.

While Nayouf is not the only ex-political prisoner on Syria’s list of gag-order targets, his case is unique in that, like President Assad, he is an Alawite and hails from a family connected to the country’s Ba’athist ruling apparatus.

In many ways, Nayouf is a Syrian political insider; as such, his case, according to representatives at Amnesty International in Paris, is considered sensitive in the corridors of the French foreign ministry.

A recent statement by US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice quoting Nayouf as the source for the location of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction buried in Syria could make his situation even more tenuous.

Indeed, during his most recent conversation with an official from the French Ministry of Interior, Nayouf was rudely dismissed and told to address his situation directly with France’s Department of State.

Nayouf’s case, following the vociferous French opposition to the American operation in Iraq, raises concerns about France’s close relations with Middle Eastern dictatorships. Vongermull assured us that France is unwavering in its support of freedom and will be the last country to stop Nayouf, or any other activist, from continuing their pro-democracy work. But until the French government shows an inclination to put Vongermull’s words into practice, questions will remain.

As for Nizar Nayouf, while he suffered many lasting wounds courtesy of Syria’s Ba’athists, he vows that as long as his fingers can still touch a keyboard he will continue his r sistance – with or without French help.

Nir Boms is a fellow at the Council for Democracy and Tolerance and Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project, a Washington DC-based counterterrorism research institute.                   

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