Recently, the Syrian regime has been escalating its persecution of political dissidents. This escalation is reflected in the large number of prison sentences being issued by the High State Security Court to prominent oppositionists, among whom are Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani, a human rights activist, who received a 12-year prison sentence for harming state security; Anwar Al-Bouni, human rights activists and attorney, who was sentenced to five years in prison for "harming national morale"; and Michel Kilo, activist for the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society and director of the Hurriyat Center for Freedom of the Press and Journalists in Syria, and Mahmoud 'Issa, political activist, who had been imprisoned from 1992 to 2000 for membership in the Communist Labor Party, both of whom received a three-year prison sentence for "harming national sentiment." Also sent to prison for "harming national sentiment," for one year each, were opposition activists Suleiman Al-Shummar and Khalil Hussein.
The prison sentences have been harshly criticized by Syrian opposition circles, which also called for the abolition of the state of emergency declared 44 years ago and demanded that the international community take a more assertive stand against the Syrian regime.
This report will review some recent statements by the political prisoners and by two other prominent oppositionists – former prisoner Riyadh Al-Turk and former Syrian MP Ma'moun Al-Homsi:
Syrian Political Prisoners Call on Their Supporters to Fight for Democracy
On April 28, 2007, after Anwar Al-Bouni was sentenced to five years in prison for "harming national morale," six political prisoners at Adra central prison near Damascus released a declaration stating that the current human rights crisis in Syria was part of a larger crisis that has been ongoing since emergency law was imposed 44 years ago. In the declaration, they also called on their supporters to continue the struggle for democracy:
"Our cause, as prisoners of opinion and conscience in Syria, is a part of, and a continuation of, the general crisis of freedoms and human rights in Syria that began with the instatement of the state of emergency 44 hard years ago. [This crisis] reached an acute climax in the 80s, and now it is reaching another acute climax, with the augmentation and escalation of repression, arrests, and expropriation of freedoms.
"Tens of thousands of Syrians have paid a high price throughout this period. Some have died, and have given their lives; some have spent long years, in the prime of their youth, in inhuman conditions in the prisons and detention camps, and have suffered barbaric torture; others fled from the tyranny and the repression into exile… and the rest of the Syrians were forced to withdraw into themselves… in flight from the tyranny.
"Those who could not bear the long era of subjugation, and set their tongues or their mind free – their fate was imprisonment, maltreatment or banishment. A very few [Syrians managed to] ascend to the summit of tyranny, repression, and domination that rules over Syrian society, and has wreaked havoc, plundered, and has subjected the country and the people to poverty and domination.
"This is the basic issue that requires continuous action. Your solidarity with the imprisoned is part of this activity, and working to free them is a necessary step, [and] not just in order to alleviate the suffering of the imprisoned [individual] and his family. Rather, this is necessary in order to encourage others and give them the sense that they are not alone in this battle, and in order to give society hope that the gates are not completely locked, and the road is not completely blocked, and that there is real hope that the crisis of freedoms and human rights in Syria will come to a peaceful solution…
"The absence of public freedoms and the violation of human rights [on the one hand] and the severe poverty [on the other] are two sides of the same coin in the countries of the Third World, with Syria being at the forefront of these countries [in this respect], especially as it is one of the totalitarian countries ruled by a single point of view… with [all those think differently] being [considered] turncoats and traitors.
"The absence of freedoms, means of expression, political participation, regularity, and accountability leads to corruption, domination, impoverishment and the plundering of public funds. Poverty worsens, and moral and human values collapse…
"The Syrian people have paid a high price to achieve its rights and freedoms, and we hope that we will be the last installment of this great and high price, after which the Syrian people will reclaim its rights and freedoms...
"We need your constant and unflagging activity in order to force the Syrian authorities to respect human rights; to respect the international law and international conventions which they accepted, and to apply them in practice; to allow freedom of expression and opinion, and political activity. Perhaps the freeing of the political prisoners will be the necessary first step [in this direction].
"[What is needed is] the termination of the state of emergency and the exceptional laws, in particular Edict 49 from 1980 and the exceptional census edict in the Hasakah Governorate from 1962; the canceling of the exceptional courts, in particular the State Security Court and the military courts, as well as the annulment of their verdicts and reimbursement for those wronged by them; the granting of full judiciary independence; the stopping and preventing of torture, and the holding of its perpetrators accountable; an end to political imprisonment; granting freedom of the press and of the media; allowing political participation, the forming of parties, organizations, and civil society associations without [the need for] an official mandate; and an end to the plunder of public funds and the policy of impoverishment, domination, and hegemony."
Michel Kilo: Syria is a Country that is Alien to Our Times
In an affidavit he submitted to the court, Michel Kilo, who received a three-year prison sentence for "harming national sentiment" after he signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, spoke of the crisis in the relationship between the Syrian people and the Syrian regime. The affidavit was also posted on the liberal website www.metransparent.com. Kilo wrote:
"The existence of a crisis in [the Syrian regime's] relationship with the people, in addition to the crisis in [political] participation and in civil [rights], emanated from [Syria's] being a regime based on foundations that are counter to those of modern societies and countries, in which civil [rights] are the cornerstone of the regime and of public life. These [civil rights] are the basis of equality, rule of law, modernity, development, and free choice [in the democratic process], of the expression of the people's hopes, role, and interests.
"In this sense, Syria is a country that is alien to our times. The police are desperately trying to arrive at a miracle [formula] that is inappropriate for the present – as the regime creates a society as it sees fit, and according to its needs, [a society] in its own image.
"Anyone who really and truly loves his homeland must act in order to bring the [Syrian] regime to stand on its feet – that is, to create [a regime] that is for society, instead of the opposite. The path to this is civil [rights], human rights, exclusive rule of the law in the country, popular participation [in political processes], and free choice – because human progress is measured by the sole criterion of freedom.
"We must ask: Aren't these problems and crises enough to harm national sentiment among the Syrians?! Isn't it obvious that a citizen who is stripped of his rights, and is poor, and is politically and socially marginalized, and subject to discrimination that does not recognize his independent existence or any acquired rights – including rights that the law defines as sacred, such as the right to work – cannot stand fast against the injuries and disasters that beset him night and day? [These disasters surely] harm his national sentiment, as well as his desire to live, and push him towards all kinds of shortcomings – from an under-sensitivity to the value of life to a loathing of himself, of his countrymen, and of his homeland."
In his statement of defense to the court, Kilo called on the Syrian regime to halt the arrests and persecution and to move towards a new policy based on dialogue, equality, and mutual respect. Although Kilo was prevented from presenting this statement in court, the statement was posted on the website of the Damascus Declaration, an umbrella organization of opposition parties and forces, among them the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Kurdish organizations (www.damdec.org). The statement read in part:
"Arrests and imprisonment are no solution. Persecution and prisons will not solve the crises, even if they make the entire opposition disappear. The crises are in the ideological, administrative, political, and economic structures of the regime, in its mentality, and in its work methods... Stop the arrests and the persecution, because their short leash may very likely end up wrapped around everyone's neck. Move towards a new policy, based on dialogue, equality, respect, and a desire for a different beginning for our homeland – citizens, state, society, government, parties, and professional unions."
In his affidavit, Kilo mocked the charges against him – i.e. "harming national sentiment": "I demand [to see] proof and indices confirming that the Syrians' national sentiment prior to my signing of the declaration was stronger than it was afterwards, and that the drop in it, and its weakening, stem solely from my signing of the declaration... Without such quantitative indices, the accusation becomes a [mere] agglomeration of words, that reflects not reality, but rather the hallucinations of the apparatuses – which are not always known for fanatically defending the Syrian people's national sentiment. In fact, they are completely unfamiliar with this sentiment – except when they are using it to accuse and punish the citizens being persecuted by them.
"For this reason, [and] so that I may be at ease, I demand [to see] indices showing that [national] sentiment did not remain damaged, but that those in charge [of this matter] have managed to restore [the national sentiment] to its former excellent state.
"At the same opportunity, I would like to know which citizens' national sentiment was harmed by my signature. For example, was it the Kurds in Syria – some of whom have been stripped of various natural rights such as citizenship in the country to which they belong, which they defend, and which they take part in building, and who are subject to security and political suspicion that presents them as disloyal to the homeland? In all honesty, I do not believe that my signature on the [Beirut-Damascus] declaration harmed their national sentiment, or the sentiment of millions of Ba'th party members who gather under the flag of the ruling party...
"If my signature on the declaration does not harm the nationals sentiment of the Kurds, and of the Ba'th members, we must wonder how harm was caused to the [national sentiment] of the women and children, the unemployed youth in Syria, and the emigrants fleeing the living conditions [in Syria] for foreign parts. How was it harmed among the pensioners and housewives mired in worry about life and about obtaining food for their families at a time of inflation, impoverishment, unemployment, and merciless corruption?..."
Also in his affidavit, Kilo set out what he saw as the real causes of harm to Syrian national sentiment – among them the Ba'th Party's failure to achieve its goals, Syria's inability to get back the Golan Heights, the growing relationship with Iran, economic backwardness, the crises in education, health, services, and culture, and chronic corruption and violations of human and civil rights.
Riyadh Al-Turk: The Trials Are Aimed at Silencing the Opposition
In an interview posted on the liberal website www.metransparent.com, oppositionist and former political prisoner Riyadh Al-Turk condemned the prison sentences being given to oppositionists, and claimed that they were aimed at silencing and intimidating them:
"No court in Syria gives people a fair trial. [Fair trials] ended with the establishment of the regime of tyranny, which harmed the judiciary authority as an independent institution, forcing the judges to act out of partisan motives and to accept the dictates of the military. In parallel to the [regular] courts, [this regime] established the emergency courts, such as the High State Security Court and the field courts.
"At this point, we see no difference between the regular court and the emergency court – after all, they are both subject to the orders of the security apparatuses, who acquired the title of 'justice police' by means of exploitation and aggression...
"Declaring a state of emergency over 40 years ago opened the door wide for the military regime to violate and make a mockery of the state's laws. For this reason, at trials of political detainees and those detained for the offense of expressing an opinion, we see grave charges based on sections of the penal code that are aimed at keeping the detainees in prison for long periods of time.
"The bottom line is that these are political trials aimed at preventing the [detainees] from exercising the right to express their opinion and to participate in public life, as guaranteed by the constitution. [These accusations] are aimed at the opposition, in order to silence the voices of its activists, and, ultimately, to intimidate the people and to encourage them to distance themselves from the public [arena]...
"We must condemn the authorities, who harm the freedoms of the citizens. We must judge them, instead of [them] judging us."
Former Syrian MP Ma'moun Al-Homsi Calls for International Action
Following the sentencings, oppositionist and former Syrian MP Muhammad Mamoun Al-Homsi published, on the Damascus Declaration website, a call to the E.U. to be firmer in its stands regarding the Syrian regime:
"...The 12-year [prison] sentence received by the prominent oppositionist Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani [is] a severe affront to the sentiments of the Syrian people, and a new attempt to convey a message to the opposition that it can expect assassinations or imprisonments. [It is also an] affront to the international community and its calls.
"This is also a message to the American administration, following [U.S. House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi's visit to Damascus and the Sharm Al-Sheikh meeting of [U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and [Syrian Foreign Minister Walid] Al-Mu'allem.
"This message, whose importance is critical, exposes the truth regarding this regime: [namely that] the price of a [Syrian] oppositionist doctor's visit to the U.S. is 12 years' imprisonment.
"Our people's pain has increased in light of this painful reality and the deterioration in the human rights arena – from the barbaric trials, some of which were public but most of which were carried out in darkness, to the sentences handed down to attorney and human rights activist Anwar Al-Bouni and, today, to Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani. [The Syrian people] protests against the international community's failure to take more aggressive stands vis-à-vis the serious deterioration taking place in Syria.
"The Syrian people is renewing its call to the E.U. and its parliament to take more effective stands against this regime – and, first and foremost, [to threaten] to recall their ambassadors if [the Syrian regime] continues on this path of arrests and trials, and to force it to release the prisoners it is holding for expressing an opinion as well as the prisoners of conscience, and to hold new parliamentary elections under international oversight."
In an interview with the liberal website www.aafaq.org, Al-Homsi expressed his support for pressure by the international community aimed at regime change in Damascus. Calling on the American people not to let terrorist regimes "vanquish freedom and the free people," he urged them to help the Syrian people get rid of those who bear most of the responsibility for the bloodbath in the Middle East. He also rejected the argument that the U.S should conduct a dialogue with what he termed the tyrannical regimes in the region, saying that this would mean that the terrorist regimes had triumphed over the U.S.
As a symbolic protest, at a May 21, 2007 press conference in Beirut, Al-Homsi declared his decision to run in the Syrian presidential election on May 27. (According to the Syrian constitution, the parliament nominates a single presidential candidate who is then submitted for approval in a referendum; additional candidates are not allowed to participate. Bashar Al-Assad received 97.62% approval in the recent referendum). In his published declaration of candidacy, he attacked Syria's totalitarian regime, calling it "the last stronghold of Stalinism." Following are excerpts from his declaration, as it appeared in English on the Free Syria website:
"Citizens compete in every country in the world for the presidency, except in Syria. Since the arrival of the Ba'th party to power, the 'renovation' slogan was created, at the time of self-renewal of the [presidential] term, thus turning Syria into an absolute, inherited, royal family state. This has led, practically and definitely, to the suspension, even in form, of what remains of the sovereignty of law, equality between citizens, and alleged equal opportunities. In all the countries of the world, citizens are entitled to elect and be elected. They are also entitled to submit applications for positions in public administration departments [–] notably, the position of the presidency, except in this totalitarian regime, the last stronghold of Stalinism...
"Oh, Syrian citizens: The self-renewer of his [presidential] term has become the head of organized crime in the worst form of state terrorism and the most fiendish of robbery and murder gangs. He buried the sprouts of freedom and democracy, buried national independence, authorized bribery, destroyed education and health, established a parasitical and fragile economy, made for corruption a state and agents, smuggled the stolen wealth of the people outside the country, and led the Syrian people to a state of poverty unprecedented in its history…
"I am a citizen like any Syrian citizen, being subject to the rightful and legitimate constitutional conditions for candidacy to the Presidency of the Republic. Moreover, thousand[s] like me are also qualified and worthy of such [a] post. I love and respect my family, my neighborhood, my town, and my Syrian homeland with its miscellaneous creeds and confessions. I venerate faith in God Almighty, and I have utmost respect [for] the freedom and democratic rights of the people as well as [for] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I hope that you may accept my candidacy for the Presidency of the Republic of Syria as a legitimate right and a national obligation in challenge of a … void and corrupt renovation, in support of your bold attitude to circumvent the forces of the Damascus Declaration as leverage for democratic national change."
*O. Winter is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.
 It should be noted that all the opposition activists mentioned herein except, with the exception of Dr. Kamal Al-Labwani, were arrested in May 2006 after they signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, a document signed by hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals calling to rectify relations between the two countries "from the root." For more on the Beirut-Damascus Declaration and the arrests of intellectuals in Syria, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 286, "Wave of Arrests of Syrian Intellectuals Following the Beirut-Damascus Declaration," July 11, 2006, Terror In America (17): Conservatives And Reformists In Iran: Divided In Condemning The Attacks; United In Opposition To The American Response .