One of the country’s leading champions of those imprisoned in Syria for human rights abuses is Maureen Thomas. The journalist Christiane Schlötzer recently sent her a copy of her article about the disappearance of Haitham al-Maleh that first appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung last weekend. Geoff Williams has translated that article.
“They fear an old man”
How a 72 yr old lawyer disappeared in Damascus
After lawyer Haitham Maleh gave his last interview he received a telephone call. He was to report the next day to an office of the secret service. Maleh didn’t. A day later three men in civilian clothes were waiting for the 78-yr-old when he arrived to unlock his car, at midday, in the middle of Damascus. The three strangers overpowered him and forced him into a car. Now the Syrian lawyer gives no more interviews. Instead, his son Iyas Maleh is giving them, and this week in Berlin he has been recalling his father’s fate.
It was the week in which the USA appointed an ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years of diplomatic ice-age. President Obama sees Syria as a signficant player in the Middle East and would like to release the country from its close alliance with Iran. Iyas Maleh regards the approach to Damascus by the West with scepticism. “The offer to improve relations must be linked to conditions” is his demand. “Syria has to show that it respects human rights.” Europe cannot simply “turn away” Maleh told the Süddeutsche Zeitung . He didn’t understand that both the Union (CDU/CSU) and the FDP stressed in Parliament (Bundestag) recently that deportations to Syria should remain possible. The opposition had demanded a stop to them.
Iyas Maleh did not know where his father was for eight days after his kidnap in Damascus on 14th October 2009. When he then appeared before a military court it became clear to the son that it would be a long time until his father was freed. The charge against him is one of “spreading false information and so undermining national morale”, an accusation frequnetly used “when they want to throw someone in prison. Punishment is 3 to 15 yrs imprisonment”. Haitham Maleh has already served six years in jail. He was chairman of a prohibited “human rights organisation” in Syria. Most recently, in written articles and an interview with the London-based Arabic TV company Barada TV he insisted on the rule of law within the state and criticised state corruption.
Thanks to a letter smuggled out of prison Iyas knows that his father has to sleep on the floor of an overcrowded cell. Iyas Maleh was also once arrested, in 1980, after which he fled to the USA. The 49-year-old computer engineer has not returned to Syria since. He has three siblings also living abroad. Their father remained in Syria.
“This allegedly so powerful Syrian government is afraid of an old man,” he says bitterly.