Thursday, June 9, 2011

An Appeal to Free Political Prisoners in Syria

The Real Face of the Syrian Revolution: Religious Extremists or Human Rights Activists?

An Appeal by Dr. M Jalmbrant

The wave of uprisings across the Arab world eventually inspired people in some of the most repressive regimes in the region to begin demanding political change. In Syria, demonstrations started in January 2011 and have continued gained momentum despite the efforts of the Syrian government and security forces to quell these protests. Although the protests have mainly been centred in Deraa and Homs, many of the main cities including Aleppo and even Damascus have seen smaller-scale demonstrations and protests. The Syrian government initially tried to appease the demonstrators by engaging them in dialogue and on the 20th April conceded to one of the protesters’ main demands by lifting the repressive emergency laws that had remained in place since the 1967 war with Israel. These laws allowed the government to detain anyone that they considered a threat to the regime for an indeterminate period of time without the need to bring charges. The removal of the emergency laws ought to have been a great victory for the protesters, however, the sincerity of these amendments remained in question as the government and their security forces continue to detain political activists at will and even to fire live ammunition at the demonstrators. According to a Syrian human rights link, it is estimated that at least 800 people have died as a result of government actions and an unknown number of people have been arrested and are being held in prisons in obscurity with no legal representation or contact with the outside world. Torture is reportedly widely used. The Syrian security forces and government are keen to tell the world that such measures are necessary as the demonstrators are linked to Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups and thereby an enemy not only of the state but of all secular societies. Unnerved by the persistent demonstrations and the demands for regime reform or change, the Syrian government is no longer interested in dialogue and has resorted to crushing the demonstrations by force and arresting the “terrorists”.

One of those people arrested is Amjad Baiazy, a former LSE student and human rights activist. He was arrested at the airport on the 11th May 2011 after having spent little over a month in Syria. His friends and relatives have been trying desperately but unsuccessfully to obtain any information about his whereabouts. No charges have been brought against him. Amjad is not a member of a religious extremist group neither is he fundamentally opposed to the Syrian government. He is instead a persistent advocate for greater freedom of expression and is against the arbitrary arrests and torture of political prisoners and human rights activists. He has worked tirelessly to establish libraries across Syria and to use art and drama as a form of expression to build a platform for intellectual dialogue within the country. Unfortunately Amjad’s situation is not unique and stories about humiliation, abuse and torture at the hands of the security forces are increasingly commonplace and act as fuel for the protests. The Syrian minority Alawite government controls the larger ethnic groups by fear and have military cantonments strategically surrounding every residential area in case of civil disobedience. When travelling through Syria, these military bases and the presence of the security service is a constant reminder of the extent that the government will go to maintain their grip of power. President Bashar Al-Assad was considered relatively open to reform and has gradually relaxed some of the security forces’ iron grip on the population but his attempts at reform have not been supported by all members of his own establishment. Few people dare to protest against the human rights abuses as those who do usually return from prison with chronic posttraumatic stress disorder and physical disabilities after the torture that they have endured, providing living reminders to the rest of the population of what happens to dissidents.

The Arab revolution has removed some of the fear of the government amongst large segments of the population and they have taken to the streets campaigning for greater political reform. Inspired by human rights activists, many Sunni religious establishments have joined the protests campaigning for greater religious expression and raising the religious fervour amongst the people. Even for secular people, the Friday Jumah prayers have taken on a significant meaning as it is the only day when public gatherings are not prohibited and many have taken this opportunity to co-ordinate their protests or simply spend time with friends.

The Jumah prayers may actually pose the biggest threat to the secular Alawite Syrian regime who tend to deflect attention to domestic issues about human rights by blaming religious extremist groups and focusing public opinion on the ongoing war with Israel. Should the domestic attention shift from the Syrian-Israeli binary to one focused on domestic policies and issues of ethnic and religious identity and the repressed Sunni majority dare to rise up against the Syrian regime, the Syrian society may reach a tipping point. Smaller scale armed resistance is also a possibility and there is already evidence that some groups of protesters are smuggling in weapons into Deraa and Homs. Acutely aware of these new developments, the Syrian military and security forces are tasked with clamping down on the demonstrators hard and fast, even if that means deploying larger scale military assaults on the civilian population and potentially repeating the 1982 Hamah massacre. If the Baath party succeed in asserting their military superiority and remain in power, the longer term outcome is likely to be stricter government control, more human rights violations and less freedom of expression for the population. With the Arab Spring in full bloom, it is unlikely that the Syrian regime can survive this in the longer term. Instead, the Syrian regime needs to acknowledge that this problem is not as simple as that of crushing a few religious extremists and instead start engaging in a dialogue with the protesters. Opening up the political platform and respecting the human rights of the population is the only way to bring about longer term prosperity in the country.

Begin by releasing Amjad Baiazy and his fellow political prisoners!

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