May 26, 2004
On May 11, in accordance with the Syria Accountability Act, President Bush imposed new political and economic sanctions on Syria. The Syrian government, not surprisingly, was quick to condemn this move, calling the sanctions “unjust and unjustified,” and portraying Syria as a “democratic country that fights terrorism.”
While this sort of pro-democracy rhetoric has been a staple of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s four-year tenure, the story of Aktham Naeesah – a lawyer, activist, and the recent recipient of the prestigious Ludovic-Trarieux award for his human-rights work – provides a glimpse into the Syrian “democratic” reality.
Two weeks ago, Naeesah nearly died as a result of a stroke suffered inside the unforgiving walls of the Sadniah prison in Damascus, a facility notorious for the brutal “rehabilitation” programs it puts its political prisoners through.
Luckily, though, Syrian guards summoned a doctor, who was able to save Naeesah’s life – at least for now.
A longtime critic of Syria’s totalitarian Baathist regime, Naeesah was first imprisoned in 1982 for his written calls for the protection and respect of human rights in Syria. In 1989, after years of harassment by Syria’s security apparatus, he and a group of fellow Syrian pro-democracy activists created the Committee for the Defense of Freedom and Human Rights (CDF).
In 1991, he was arrested a second time, for taking part in activities intended to regain the independence of the Syrian Bar Association. For his actions, he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Following his release in 1998, Naeesah and other CDF members continued their activism despite Syrian authorities’ routine surveillance, phone-tapping, mail confiscation, and harassment of them and their families. But on April 13, he was arrested yet again and thrown into Sadniah prison, accused of “spreading false information and establishing a secret organization with an international influence.”
Shortly before his arrest, Naeesah had presented a petition to the government signed by 7,000 Syrian intellectuals seeking the abolition of Syria’s emergency laws, which have been in place since the Baath party came to power in 1963. He also issued a report accusing Syrian authorities of illegally arresting more than 1,000 Kurds and calling for an end to the state’s “terrorist and illegal practices” against Syria’s Kurdish minority. (In March, around 100 Kurds were wounded or killed in anti-government riots and around the Syrian city of Qamoshli.)
Naeesah is not alone in the Sadniah prison, the only place in Syria where political dissidents can gather “freely.” He is among fellow democracy activists such as Haitham Malih, a lawyer arrested in February while boarding a flight from Syria to the United Arab Emirates. Malih’s arrest was connected to a speech he made in the German parliament in December 2003 concerning human-rights abuses in Syria. There is also Salama George Kila, a Palestinian writer and journalist arrested in March 1992 by political security in Damascus. Kila, who had reportedly written an article on censorship in Syria for a Jordanian daily paper, was found guilty of a misdemeanor by a Syrian court and sentenced to the maximum of three years in prison. His release was expected in March 1995, but he remains behind Syrian bars.
Sadly, the list goes on. But there is some hope.
The campaign to release Naeesah has reached Capitol Hill, where Reps. Elliot Engel (D., N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) – joining similar calls from Europe and the U.S.-based Syrian Reform Party – recently issued a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell asking him to “press Syria to immediately and unconditionally release Aktham Naeesah and drop all related charges against him.”
But the secretary must act before it’s too late. Naeesah was last seen on April 21 leaving a Damascus courtroom, surrounded by two Syrian security agents. His family believes that he has had a heart attack and is being refused treatment.
In the past, Syrian officials have refused to give Naeesah his required medication because it’s “foreign-made,” says Mazen Darwish, a founding member of CDF now living in Paris. “The Syrian regime should decide that if it would like to engage with the outside world, its first step must be to improve its human-rights record and release Aktham Naeesah along with other political prisoners.”
At his most recent court date in Damascus, Naeesah had a noticeable limp and was unable to move his right hand. But somehow, he was still walking – more determined than ever to continue his march for freedom. It seems that the hope for democracy in Syria is walking along with him.