Kamal Labwani: parliamentary archives page #labwani

Since Kamal was illegally imprisoned by the Syrian regime in Adra Prison, in 2005, numerous of our democratically elected representatives have raised his plight in our national and international parliaments. I have trawled through the websites of the UK Parliament and the European Parliament to consolidate the various representations in one place. I have also linked again to the petition running on the Number 10 website.

Some of you may wonder why I bother.

To some, Kamal is just one more unfortunate political progressive caught on the wrong side of an unreconstructed Middle Eastern dictator.

Not to me.

I bother because he is an artist, a philosopher, a radical and a Liberal.

Most of all, though, I bother because he is my friend.

Please take a look at this parliamentary archives page and be grateful for our own freedoms and democracy.

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Syria and Human Rights in the European Parliament, September 2009 #eu #syria# labwani

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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Mozes on Syria’s policy of “resistance”: regional politics from a Syrian perspective #syria #labwani #maleh #bunni #aqil

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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BBC World Service on Syria

Haytham al-Maleh was arrested after an interview with opposition TV

Thank you to Maureen Thomas for drawing my attention to two important internet broadcasts by the BBC World Service. The first is with Iyas Maleh, whose father Haytham al-Maleh was imprisoned by the Syrian regime last year. He talks here about the circumstances that led to his arrest and the character of one of Syria’s greatest defenders of human rights.

The second is with Joshua Landis, the American Middle East expert who gives an expert analysis of the situation in Syria.

You can find both interviews on the BBC page Syria: The Prospects for Political Change.

Joshua Landis blogs frequently on Syria and  in 2005 carried an interview with Kamal al-Labwani from 2005, conducted by Joe Pace. It is well worth reading.

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Anwar Al-Bunni: Smiling and with his head held high… #albunni #allabwani #amnesty #syria

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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Kamal Labwani and the West’s appalling indifference #eu #syria #labwani

Last October, I wrote to over a hundred senior officials and politicians, many of whom are based in Brussels. I wanted to draw attention to Syria’s continual violation of human rights and  flagrant disregard for the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as the European Union was intending to sign an Association Agreement with Syria. I wrote very directly about the situation of Kamal al-Labwani.

You can read my text here:

Email r.e. EU Association Agreement and Kamal

The only person who could be bothered to respond was Liz Lynne, the Liberal Democrat MEP, who wrote back to me on the 6th November to say she was taking my concerns up with Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy (if it wasn’t a distraction I would ask who the hell the rest of the elected politicians I wrote to think they are, disregarding correspondence as they enjoy the salaries and expenses I am part-paying for). You can read that email in full below:

Response from Liz Lynne MEP r.e. EU Association Agreement and Kamal

Yesterday, and demonstrating impressive commitment, I received a further email from Liz Lynne to which she attached a letter from Baroness Catherine Ashton, the new High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Read it – and be angry:

Ashton response to Liz Lynne

If you clicked the link to Ashton’s official page above you will have seen it is headed up with the following quote:

“I am looking forward to working closely with colleagues in the Council, the Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States to strengthen Europe’s foreign policy. We will do this with determination and with full respect for the values that the European Union stands for, above all peace and prosperity, freedom and democracy, the rule of law and the universality and indivisibility of human rights.”

What pointless drivel from a pointless politician.

The total press comment on her official site consists of two statements of congratulations following appointments and a statement of shock following the Lakki Marwat bombing.

No action.

No condemnation.

No statements of stiff resolve.

Instead, her words are the grey, empty platitudes we fear from out-of-touch politicians – politicians we still hope might be moved to action by the personalisation of the problems they otherwise put behind them at the end of the day. If this is what being “the best person for the job” means, as Baroness Ashton claims she is, then the words in her email are a damning indictment of the impotency of this newly-created position. Ashton points out in that report that EU leaders were “comfortable” with her appointment. I am sure they were: Ashton is clearly not someone for rocking the boat, but rather is happy to continue a policy of engagement that talks tough on human rights and political freedom, but achieves nothing:  maintain the status quo of holding our collective noses as we conduct business as usual.

I am glad she is at least “worried”. I am also worried.

This was Kamal in Basildon in 2005, standing proudly by his artwork with Chris Hyde and his great friend and supporter Maureen Thomas:

Kamal, Chris Hyde (L) and Maureen Thomas (R)

This was Kamal in 2006, peering from a prison cell:

Kamal behind bars

I am worried.

I am shocked.

I am bloody furious that my friend, who shares our values of freedom of expression, freedom of thought and peaceful dissent, languishes in a Syrian hell-hole whilst supposedly powerful politicians like Baroness Cathy Ashton appear to think that his incarceration is incidental to a “comprehensive political dialogue and longer term relationship that can build trust and ensure progress on human rights issues.”

What possesses these people to write such coded cant? She doesn’t even mention the fact that once signed, the agreement can be suspended if human rights violations are evidenced. Too embarrassing perhaps as people might question why it was being signed in the first place?

Look at those two pictures.

Think about them and what they represent.

Think of the gentle family man, the artist, the doctor, who is imprisoned because he wants his family, friends, colleagues and countrymen to enjoy the chance to talk freely, to believe and think what they want, to worship as they choose (or not) and to associate socially and politically without interference from state-sponsored goons.

If you are involved in politics, whichever party or none, ask yourself why you got involved – and if you could write the words of Baroness Ashton? (And don’t give me patronising rubbish about “a complex situation”,  “difficult discussions” and “diplomatic sensitivities” – you know I’ve heard them all.)

And if those pictures anger you, if the complacency of politicians and officials who are charged with representing our values as a country abroad frustrates you, if you abhor the political double-speak that expresses concern whilst the ink dries, then click one of the links below and take action:

Familiarise yourself with Kamal, his experiences and his beautiful, moving paintings

Write to Gordon Brown, our Prime Minister

If you are a UK national, sign the petition r.e. Kamal and the EU Trade Association Agreement

If you are on Twitter, Tweet the link to the petiton by cut and pasting the following: http://bit.ly/TZ4R7

Join Kamal’s facebook page

Thank you Liz Lynne for being interested – and for acting.

And shame on the rest of you, Liberals and non-Liberals alike, for your indifference.

You know who you are.

Show us why we should continue to even consider you worth our confidence.

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Detained Syrian human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni receives prestigious German award #albunni #syria #un

On April 24 2007 Anwar al-Bunni, human rights activist and friend and colleague of my friend, Kamal al-Labwani, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale”. He had been detained since May 2006 in harsh conditions and abused by his guards. On 20 May, Kamal suffered a similar fate: sentenced to twelve years, later extended by a further three.

On 1 May 2008, Anwar al-Bunni was selected to receive an award from the Irish organisation Front Line, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. In June 2008 Martin Sheen and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern TD joined Front Line to celebrate his courage.

Just recently, in December 2009, Anwar’s courage and commitment to human rights was recognised again.

In December 2009 the  German Association of Judges awarded Anwar al-Bunni its prestigious human rights prize, recognition that is intended to strengthen and further respect for universal human rights and basic freedoms.

Those of us privileged enough to live in liberal democracies, where free speech is taken for granted, should keep good people like Anwar al-Bunni, Kamal al-Labwani, Mohannad al-Hussani, Haitham al-Maneh and Ma’an Aqil at the forefront of our thinking. We should not forget the sacrifice they and their families are making in order that, one day, they might enjoy those same freedoms. In that struggle, the Syrian government might remember that it is a signatory to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ask itself how detention of these peaceful dissenters conforms with the commitments it has made as a member of the international community.

Whether in the UK, the US, Germany, or elsewhere in the EU, each of us should continue to hound our leaders to keep the Syrian regime under as much pressure as possible. It is only the spotlight remaining on the likes of Anwar, Kamal, Mohannad, Haitham and Ma’an that will ensure that Syria eventually faces up to its responsibilities – and its failure to adhere to the standards of conduct to be expected of a country that wants to be taken seriously on the international stage.

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Syrian regime disappears another journalist – Ma’an Aqil #aqil #labwani #syria

I received a disturbing email from Alkarama this morning.

Ma’an Aqil, a prominent journalist, was arrested on November 22nd. His would appear to be the latest in a wave of intimidation conducted by Syrian security forces against journalists and bloggers.

You can read the report from Reporters sans frontières on this link here: Newspaper journalist is latest victim of wave of arbitrary arrests and trials

Ma’an Aqil had been investigating government and corporate corruption. No surprises there then why the Syrian regime wanted to shut him up.

Friends and supporters of Kamal Labwani will want to make sure this latest detention is brought to people’s attention.

The full press release from Alkarama is below in PDF format (English and Arabic):

Arbitrary Detention of Ma’an Aqil

سوريا: اعتقال السيد معن عاقل

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