Inside Syria’s Gulag

By Nir Boms | 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 Na’eesah-a lawyer, activist, and the recent laureate of the prestigious “Ludovic Trarieux” award for his distinct human rights work-provides a glimpse into the Syria’s “democratic” reality.

Two weeks ago, Na’eesah 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 offers its political prisoners.

Luckily, though, Syrian guards summoned a doctor, who was able to save Na’eesah’s life-at least for the moment.  

A longtime critic of Syria’s totalitarian Ba’athist regime, Na’eesah 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, Na’eesah was arrested yet again 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, Na’eesah and other CDF members continued their activism despite being subjected by Syrian authorities to routine surveillance, phone tapping, confiscation of mail and the harassment of their families. 

That is, until April 13, when Na’eesah was arrested and thrown into Sadniah prison, accused of “spreading false information and establishing a secret organization with an international influence.” 

Shortly before his arrest, Na’eesah 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 Ba’ath party came to power in 1963. 

He also issued a report that accused Syrian authorities of illegally arresting more than 1,000 Kurds and called for an end to the state’s “terrorist and illegal practices” against the Kurdish minority in Syria (last month, close to a 100 Kurds were killed and more than 500 wounded in anti-government riots and around the Syrian city of Quamoshli). 

Na’eesah is not alone in Sadniah prison, the only place in Syria where political dissidents can gather “freely.” He will be among fellow democracy activists like Haitham Malih, a lawyer who was arrested in February while boarding a flight from Syria to the United Arab Emirates. Malih’s arrest is connected with a speech that 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 sentence of three years. His release was expected in March 1995, yet he remains behind Syrian bars. 

Sadly, the list goes on. Yet some hope still remains.  

The campaign to release Na’eesah has reached Capitol Hill, where Reps. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R- FL), joining similar calls from Europe and the U.S-based Syrian Reform Party, issued a letter recently to Secretary of State Colin Powell asking him to “press Syria to immediately and unconditionally release Aktham Na’eesah and drop all related charges against him.” 

Hopefully, the Secretary will act before it is too late. Na’eesah 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 Na’seeah his required medication since it is “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 Na’eesah along with other political prisoners,” Darwish said. 

At his most recent court date in Damascus, Na’eesah 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. 

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