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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Patrick Seale protests arbitrary arrest and torture in a Middle Eastern country

Here is yet another report about torture in a Middle Eastern country, but it will not make news headlines, unlike the reports about "Zionist" torture.

This letter is exceptional because Patrick Seale is known as an unalloyed sycophant, spinmeister and apologist for the Asad family. Please note:

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.

Why are there no headlines about torture in Syria?

Ami Isseroff

First Published 2007-05-18, Last Updated 2007-05-18 09:11:51


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 harm.

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 Code). 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 interrogation.

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 general.

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 courts?


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.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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