Sunday, May 20, 2007

An Open Letter to President Bashar al-Asad


Is this not the moment, Mr. President, to show the world a humane and
generous face, and win international support, by turning your attention to
the plight of prisoners of conscience, unfairly and cruelly punished by your
courts? Asks Patrick Seale.

Dear Mr. President,

Friends of Syria -- and I count myself among them -- have been puzzled and
saddened by the lengthy jail sentences passed on Syrian political prisoners,
human rights activists, and prisoners of conscience. These harsh punishments
have attracted worldwide attention and done your country's reputation great

With the greatest respect, I urge you to review these cases and to grant an
early amnesty to the prisoners.

Anwar al-Bunni is Syria's leading defender of political prisoners and
prisoners of conscience. In March 2006, with funding and encouragement from
the European Union, he created a Syrian human rights centre. Your security
services closed it down almost immediately.

On 17 May 2006, Bunni was arrested and detained with common criminals at
'Adra prison near Damascus where, according to Amnesty International, he
suffered beatings and degrading treatment. He was not allowed to meet
privately with his lawyers. I understand that he has written to you drawing
your attention to the fact that some six thousand prisoners in 'Adra are
routinely subjected to beatings, insults and terror, and prevented from
leaving their cells, watching TV, or listening to the radio. He has asked
you to investigate prison conditions. I very much hope you will respond
positively to this request.

On 31 December, Bunni was assaulted by a criminal detainee who pushed him
down some stairs and then beat him on the head in the presence of prison
guards, who failed to intervene. On 25 January 2007, he was severely beaten
by prison guards who made him crawl on all fours and forcibly shaved his
head. I feel sure that you are aware that he is a prisoner of conscience
detained solely for the expression of non-violent ideas.

On 24 April, he was sentenced by the Damascus Criminal Court to five years'
imprisonment on the charge of "spreading false information harmful to the
state" (Article 286 of the Penal Code). Foreign diplomats present in court
were disturbed by this harsh sentence and considered the trial unfair. Such
political trials before Syria's Criminal, Military and State Security Courts
have come under severe international criticism for the blatant influence of
the security services on the proceedings.

I would suggest that prisoners like Anwar al-Bunni, a respected lawyer, are
more damaging to you inside prison than at liberty.

According to Amnesty International, his 'crime' was to have raised the case
of the death in custody of 26-year-old Muhammad Shaher Haysa, as a result of
inhumane treatment, possibly amounting to torture. When Haysa's body was
returned to his family, it was said to have shown signs of torture. Amnesty
says that torture and ill treatment are still widespread in Syrian prisons
and that there has been no independent investigation into any of the cases
of torture and suspicious deaths reported over the years.

I feel sure you will agree that it is of the utmost importance that Syrian
prison guards comply strictly with the UN Convention against Torture and
other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment -- to which Syria is a party.

Other recent cases are those of the prominent writer and journalist Michel
Kilo and the English language teacher Mahmoud 'Issa who, after long months
of detention at 'Adra, were each given three-year prison sentences on 4 May
by the Damascus Criminal Court.

They were charged with "weakening nationalist sentiments" (Article 285 of
the Penal Code), with "inciting sectarian strife" (Article 307), and with
"publishing a political article or giving a political speech with the aim of
making propaganda for a political party, society or a banned political
association" (Article 150 of the Code of Military Procedures.). 'Issa was
also charged with "exposing Syria to hostile acts" (Article 278 of the Penal

Their 'crime' was involvement in the so-called Beirut-Damascus Declaration,
a petition, signed by some 300 Syrians and Lebanese and released on 12 May
2006, which called for the normalization of relations between Syria and
Lebanon by exchanging ambassadors and defining their common border.
Another opposition figure, Kamal Labwani, founder of the Democratic Liberal
Gathering, has suffered an even worse fate. He was arrested at Damascus
airport in 2005 on his return from the United States, where he had attended
a conference and met White House officials. This month he was given a
shocking sentence of 12 years in jail on a charge of contacting a foreign
country and "encouraging attack against Syria."

Syria is, of course, not the only, or even the worst, abuser of human rights
in the Middle East. Prison conditions in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi
Arabia, and other Arab countries are also said to be appalling. The United
States set a terrible example by its torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and
by its policy of extraordinary rendition -- that is to say sending prisoners
for interrogation to countries notorious for torture.

Israel, in turn, has regularly been accused of torturing some of the 10,000
Palestinian prisoners it is holding. One notorious Israeli method is to
shake the prisoner, sometimes to death. A report by two Israeli human rights
organizations published on 6 May revealed that many Palestinians were
deprived of sleep, beaten severely, handcuffed until their wrists bled and
bound in painful positions in order to break their spirit before

Most experts agree that torture is almost always counter-productive.
Information extracted under torture is seldom reliable. It creates hate and
an unquenchable thirst for revenge.

In Syria, far from contributing to social peace, the ill-treatment of
prisoners tends to sharpen hostility between communities and sects. Far from
protecting Syria against foreign enemies, it provides them with a pretext
for hostile propaganda and attack.

The punitive sentences of prisoners of conscience and other abuses of human
rights are damaging to Syria's foreign policy goals. I believe one of your
primary goals is to win the recognition and respect of the international
community, so as to strengthen Syria's hand in negotiations, to attract
foreign direct investment, to welcome tourists in ever greater numbers to
Syria's unique sites and to promote economic and social development in

Another important goal is to recover the Golan Heights by means of a
comprehensive Arab peace settlement with Israel. A third goal is to secure
ratification by all 27 EU members of the association agreement with the
European Union, which has still not been put into effect.

A fourth crucial goal must surely be to put Syria's relations with Lebanon
on a healthy basis after the strains and quarrels of recent years. The two
countries are cut from the same flesh. They are essential to each other.
There can be no question of a permanent divorce.

Syria has certain vital interests in Lebanon: It cannot tolerate a hostile
government in Beirut or the dominant influence there of a hostile foreign
power, as this would be a threat to its national security. Lebanon, in turn,
wants Syrian recognition of its independence and sovereignty. Surely a deal
can be struck on this basis that would satisfy both parties.

Syria has come under great pressure from the United States ever since the
invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was also a dangerous moment last summer when
Israel seemed about to extend to Syria its aggression against Lebanon. The
hostility of France was a further worrying factor.

These pressures now seem to be easing. The world is beginning to recognize
the crucial role Syria could play in resolving some of the region's
conflicts, once its own interests are addressed.

Is this not the moment, Mr. President, to show the world a humane and
generous face, and win international support, by turning your attention to
the plight of prisoners of conscience, unfairly and cruelly punished by your


Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author
of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle
East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.