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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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