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To mark Syria’s National Day, 17th April, friends and supporters of Syria’s wrongly incarcerated prisoners of conscience protested outside the Syrian Embassy at 8 Belgrave Square, in London. Between 70 and 80 people were in attendance, many of them signing a letter to the President that was delivered via Embassy officials.

Simultaneous protests mounted in Berlin, Bern, Brussels, Canberra, London, Montreal, Paris, Stockholm and Washington.

There is always a danger that in the tumult of an election we forget about those who would wish to be doing exactly as we will be able to do on May 6th: vote for those we want to represent us.

Don’t forget our friends: Kamal al-Labwani, Anwar al-Bunni, Haitham al-Maleh and Muhannad al-Hassani amongst the many, many others. We must do what they cannot and speak up for their right to be heard.

Pictures from the demonstration are below.

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As Syria prepares to celebrate 64 years of independence, the European Union continues to work towards cementing relations with Syria through its EU-Syria Mediterranean Association Agreement. Maureen Thomas, however, has alerted me to a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy to remind the world that despite its reformist rhetoric, peaceful and democratic reformers such as Kamal Labwani, Anwar Bunni, Haithem Maleh and Muhannad Hassani are still locked up on trumped-up charges in defiance of Syria’s commitments on civil and political rights.

In an email to Maureen, Iyas al-Maleh, son of imprisoned human rights champion Haitham al-Maleh, thanked her for mobilising support for the demonstration, to be held at 3pm on Saturday 17 April, 8 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PH. Similar demonstrations are already planned for Brussels and Washington, with work ongoing to organise similar protests in Berlin, Geneva and Paris.

If you are a friend and supporter of Kamal, and his fellow prisoners, please see if you are free and visit the sign-up page to register:

http://sites.google.com/site/syriademo/

News of the proposed demonstration comes at the same time as the UNHCR reports that the Syrian regime continues to harass its political internees. It makes for upsetting reading and you are left wondering at the strength of men who still find the courage to defy the authorities even in Adra prison, preferring to surrender their visiting rights instead of succumbing to the indignity of being forced to meet family in prison garb.

So please see if you are free on 17 April and make a standard for freedom of conscience and human rights.

And our friends.

Kamal in prison uniform

Kamal, in prison uniform

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Kamal Labwani’s family have written to Maureen Thomas, describing the latest humiliations in Adra Prison, Damascus. Maureen’s covering comment is a timely reminder of the human frailty of our friends who have been imprisoned in Damascus: “One can only admire the prisoners’ pride, determination and courage but I worry for Haytham, Muhannad, Anwar and Kamal who still have a long time to go with no money or medication to help keep them healthy.”

The letter from Kamal’s family speaks for itself:

“We are ok actually and our father but now we are not visiting him because he asked us not to.

Him and all the prisoners of conscious in Adra prison reject to be visited because the authorities want them to wear prison pajamas during the visit and not civilian clothes or even sports pajamas as they say they want them to be equal like other prisoners.

So the prisoners of conscience rise up claiming that they should be also equal to other prisoners in other rights like their visit is not being watched and have the right to visit for two hours rather than only half an hour and other fair requests.  They say if you want us to be equal let us be equal in every single right.   It is really not a matter of wearing prison pajamas or not, they want to be treated like other prisoners.   If the authority wants them to be equal with civil prisoners they wish to be really equal.

And so now we cannot visit him because if we go he will refuse to come out and see us. We cannot give him money and provide him with medication. Not just us but the other prisoners’ families.

I would not be accurate if I called what the prisoners of conscience are doing as a strike because I really don’t know if they will end it or keep doing this until their demands are accomplished.  We really don’t know what the circumstances will bring but until now it seems that they insist to go on.

I’m sorry for this long letter. We all hope the new days will bring good news.”

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Alkarama have reported that Ma’an Aqil and Abdul Rahman Koki have been freed by the Syrian government within days of each other.

Aqil, a journalist in Damascus, was arrested on 22 November 2009 and was detained arbitrarily for three months (I blogged about his detention in December). Alkarama report that he was released Tuesday 23 February 2010.

Yesterday, Alkarama reported that Abdul Rahman Koki was released on Tuesday 16 February 2010, following a presidential pardon.

In both cases Alkarama had referred the cases to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Reporters Sans Frontières also report that two other journalists, Ali Taha and Ali Ahmed, have also been released after weeks of arbitrary detention.

Whilst being cautious not to overstate the significance of these releases, they offer a faint glimmer of hope in so far as the Syrian regime appears willing to free individuals who have clearly been prepared to challenge the government domestically and, in Koki’s case, be directly critical of  it. As Alkarama notes, we must take this opportunity to remind the Syrian authorities of their responsibility towards international human rights law and urge them to release all prisoners of conscience, including Kamal al-Labwani, Hytham al-Maleh and Anwar al-Bunni.

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I don’t suppose I am alone in not paying much attention to what our representatives say in the European Parliament.

It is a mistake not to. Trawling through the archives I found the text of a debate from September last year in which the cases of Muhannad Al-Hassani, Kamal Al-Labwani and Anwar Al-Bunni are all referenced.
Take a moment to read it and realise that there is a point to what these people do – and we should be supporting them in their efforts.

Kamal, Anwar and Muhannad need us to.

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Winston Churchill made an elaborate but astute observation regarding Russia in a radio broadcast in October 1939:

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Step forward seventy years and it’s not too great a leap of the imagination to make the same observation of Syria – though you might argue that the Syrian national interest bears a close correlation to the interests of Bashar al-Assad.

N. Mozes of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has compiled a comprehensive series of media reports that quote Syrian politicians and officials on Syria’s evolving regional and global political relations. The article, “Syria Regains Pivotal Regional, Int’l Role – The Triumph of the ‘Course of Resistance’”, reveals a Syria that has grown immeasurably in confidence, with a determination to resist what it sees as Western interference in its regional politics.

If you are interested in the politics of the Middle East, I urge you to read it.

Syria’s diplomatic bravura is understandable in terms of the politics of local alliances and attempting to forge a distinct and US-independent stabilising force in the region, along Islamic lines.

It is also entirely in keeping with the egoistical nature of Bashar’s regime. Hitherto, Damascus has been regarded by many as Ba’athist in name rather than principle. However, Syria’s posturing and tightened grip on matters of internal security (in obvious violation of its civil and political rights obligations in international law) has provided Syria, as the only regional power run by the Ba’ath Party, with a beacon status with which to lead a foreign policy that is based on revitalised Ba’athist ideals of pan-Arab nationalism.

In my view, domestic suppression is part of the code of that diplomatic flexing, demonstrating in its publicly loud prevarication over the EU-Syria Mediterranean Agreement that it will not see its economic interests subordinated to Western ideals of civil society.  The careful switch of language regarding the US that Mozes identifies, from enemy to adversary, shows Bashar understanding that the West are desperate to engage Syria but that, at the same time, by maintaining a measure of distance he can enhance his credibility as the emerging leader of the region.

This, to my mind, can only have worrying consequences for those like Kamal al-Labwani who advocate peaceful and democratic reform of Syria’s politics. He and others would appear to be exemplars of Bashar’s policy of resistance. If Bashar’s goal is consolidation of his regional status, he will be in no hurry to release those detained for democratic politics redolent of the West (and Israel), except maybe on an exceptional basis to titillate those European politicians determined to spot reformist intentions in the Syrian regime whatever the regional political weather (and cost to their own diplomatic credibility). If this is the case, maintaining the international spotlight on their plight is even more important.

The fact that the EU are so ready to embrace the EU-Syria Mediterranean Agreement suggest that Bashar’s ploy of deft belligerence is working and the diplomatic pressures that those of us concerned about the fate of Kamal al-Labwani, Anwar al-Bunni, Hatham al-Maleh and Ma’an Aqil wish to see exerted will not emerge. The UK, like its EU partners, is in danger of being suckered.

I hope I am very wrong.

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Anwar al-Bunni - photo released by family

On Wednesday I blogged about the German Association of Judges awarding Anwar al-Bunni their prestigious human rights prize. On that page is a link to an article by Peter Franck und Ruth Jüttner of Amnesty International Berlin. My German is just about passable enough for me to be able to recognise that their words merited a fuller, more accurate translation. Thankfully, as a professional linguist, Dad’s German is better than mine…

Peter and Ruth paint a picture in words of a dignified and noble man, and his extraordinary family, who have peaceably defied authority to defend the human rights of their Syrian countrymen – much like Anwar’s friend and colleague, Kamal al-Labwani. I have tried to contact the authors to ask if I might post a translation, but so far to no avail. I hope they will forgive me my eagerness to post their words in English, that more might read about the efforts of Anwar al-Bunni.

Please click the picture below to be taken to the German original:

The translation which follows is a direct text translation, with only very slight editing for form. I have taken the liberty of inserting some links if you wish to find out more information. Thanks Dad for performing the translation so quickly and so effectively. I hope you all find Peter and Ruth’s words as inspiring and humbling a read as I did.

Translator Geoff Williams

Smiling and with his head held high…

Peter Franck und Ruth Jüttner, translated by Geoff Williams

On 24 April 2007, smiling, and with his head held high, the Syrian lawyer and human rights defender Anwar al-Bunni entered the courtroom of the No.1 Criminal Court in Damascus. In accordance with Article 286 of the Syrian Criminal Code he was charged with the “promulgation of false information likely to endanger the state.” The reason for this serious allegation were statements made to the press by Anwar al-Bunni in April 2006 in which he denounced torture and maltreatment in Syrian prisons.

In concrete terms, the lawyer had demanded to know the causes for the death of 26 yr old Mohammed Schaher Haysa. This young man was detained for several months at an unknown location. In April 2006 the authorities had handed over his body, which showed traces of torture, to his family. During his trial Anwar al-Bunni demanded that the Syrian authorities should investigate the death of Mohammed Shaher Haysa.  The court did not, however, pursue the allegations of serious mistreatment and instead sentenced Anwar al-Bunni to five years’ imprisonment.

This draconian sentence provoked consternation amongst the family, supporters and defenders of al-Bunni, being far more severe than the three-year sentence usually imposed in similarly staged trials. Anwar al-Bunni accepted the judgement with composure and described the trial and verdict as a “politically motivated and blatant contravention of the right to freedom of expression, aimed at terrorising and intimidating the Syrian public and politically active citizens.”

It was not the first time that Anwar al-Bunni had demanded that the courts should investigate maltreatment and torture. In June  2002 he had defended the non-violent  political activist Aref Dalilah before the Supreme Court for State Security in Damascus. This court  was established five years after the imposition of the state of emergency in March 1968 and deals solely with cases of a political nature or which have a relevance to state security.

Proceedings before this court fall far short of the international standards for fair trials.  There is no appeal against decisions of the court, defendants have limited access to legal support and judges at the court have wide ranging discretion with regard to the format of the proceedings. This was also clear in the trial of Aref Dalilah. When Anwar al Bunni insisted that his client’s accusations of maltreatment should be recorded  and investigated he was forcibly removed from the courtroom by security officers. The presiding judge subsequently withdrew from him his accreditation to appear as a lawyer before the Supreme Court for State Security.

A month later Aref Dalilah, former Dean of the Faculty of Economics at the University of Aleppo, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for his support for political reform. In August 2008, after 7 years largely spent in solitary confinement, the 65 year-old was released as part of a presidential amnesty.

When still a young man within his family, Anwar al-Bunni, the second youngest of seven brothers and sisters, suffered persecution and years of incarceration because of his political activity. Since the late 1970’s four of his siblings have been imprisoned time and again for political reasons in various Syrian prisons and under appalling conditions.

Until the 1990’s the conditions in Syrian prisons were so degrading, humiliating and brutal that they amounted to systematic torture. According to later press statements from his older brother Akram, there were times when Anwar al-Bunni and their mother were the only members of the family not in prison and divided up visits to family members imprisoned in different prisons in different places between themselves.

When Anwar al-Bunni commenced his law studies in 1979 at the University of Damascus three of his brothers and one sister were in prison on political grounds. After a few years practice as a lawyer he undertook the defence of political prisoners in the courts and founded a committee to press for the release of political prisoners.

After the death of President Hafez al-Hassad and the succession of his son Bashar in June 2000, there was something of a political thaw, which has come to be known as the “Damascus Spring”. A sense of new horizons, inspired by the young president’s promise to drive reform forward, spread across the country. Numerous discussion circles developed amongst the populace where members of the opposition and intellectual debated the routes to political change, democracy and the achievement of human rights. During this period, together with other prominent human rights lawyers, Anwar al-Bunni founded in 2001 one of the first human rights organisations, the “Human Rights Association in Syria” (HRAS) which sought official recognition from the authorities.

Despite the regime’s return to an authoritarian style of leadership and massive suppression of dissent, Anwar al-Bunni continued his determined and courageous support for the victims of indiscriminate state violence. He was unflinching in his criticism of the 40 year-old state of emergency which aided and abetted the abuse of human rights on a huge scale. He remained in contact with journalists, foreign diplomats and with international human rights organisations. He informed the world public about the politically motivated trials of  activists campaigning peacefully for democratic change and about the conditions of his clients’ imprisonment.

The authorities reacted with sanctions intended to intimidate him. He was repeatedly brought before the Damascus bar association, was disciplined and temporarily barred from practising. He was harassed, intimated, threatened and kept under surveillance by the security services. In December 2003, intending to travel to Weimar to receive the city’s human rights prize on behalf of the reformist politician Riad Seif, at that time  and still today imprisoned, he was refused permission to trav el. An EU funded Human Rights Centre under his directorship was closed down by the authorities  in March 2006 only days after opening. Not only Anwar al-Bunni but his family also has been subject to punitive measures. In May 2007, just one month after he received his sentence, his wife Ragheda Issa Rafiki was deprived, with no reason given, of her civil servant post by order of Prime Minister Muhammed Naji al-Otri.

The 50 year-old lawyer has been in prison for three-and-a-half years in atrocious conditions. He shares a cell with thirty others, all convicted criminals. Both other prisoners as well as prison officers have physically brutalised and humiliated him. And yet his spirit is not broken. On behalf of a number of non-violent political prisoners he has repeatedly addressed open letters to the UN High Commission for Human Rights and the Syrian president, drawing attention to the conditions of their imprisonment. Anwar al-Bunni himself suffers from arthritis, a condition made worse by lack of movement and the dampness of the cells.

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