July 11, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 286

Wave of Arrests of Syrian Intellectuals Following the Beirut-Damascus Declaration

July 11, 2006 | By H. Varulkar*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 286


On May 12, 2006, the Lebanese media and websites close to the Syrian opposition published a document titled "The Beirut-Damascus Declaration/Damascus-Beirut Declaration." The declaration, which calls for improving Syrian-Lebanese relations, was signed by several hundred Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals. It depicts the deterioration in relations between the two countries in recent months, and sets out, in 10 points, measures that must be taken in order to rectify these relations "from the root." The first point calls on Syria to recognize Lebanon as an independent state by demarcating the border between the two countries and establishing mutual diplomatic representation between them. [1]

The Syrian authorities' hostile response to the declaration was manifested in scathing articles in the government daily newspapers critical of the declaration and of the intellectuals who signed it, as well as in a wave of arrests of some of these intellectuals. Human rights organizations reported on the harsh conditions and ill-treatment to which the intellectuals were being subjected in prison, and on the deleterious effects on their health. There were also reports that 17 Syrian officials had been removed from their posts because they had signed the declaration.

At the same time, there was much criticism, both within Syria and outside it, of the Syrian regime and of the arrests. Some Syrian oppositionist journalists claimed that the attempt "to stifle the voices" by means of the arrests would only exacerbate the anger of the intellectuals and "add fuel to the fire." Various Syrian human rights activists and organizations called on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and on the international community to intervene in the events in Syria and to bring about the release of all political prisoners in Syria.

The following are excerpts from the text the declaration and from the reactions to it as well as reports from the unfolding events:

I. The Declaration

The text of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration/Damascus-Beirut Declaration reads: [2] "The increasing deterioration in Lebanese-Syrian relations is threatening to create a deep rift between the two neighboring countries and the two brother peoples. This deterioration has worsened since [the term] of Lebanese President Emil Lahoud was extended - [which constituted] a violation of the spirit of the Lebanese constitution and contempt for the opinion of the Lebanese majority. This deterioration has further worsened following the crimes of political assassination that have led to the deaths or wounding of politicians, party members, media personnel, and citizens - and first and foremost, the assassination of [former Lebanese Prime Minister ] Rafiq Al-Hariri."

In the declaration, the intellectuals go on to describe how their great sense of concern about the dangerous deterioration in relations between the countries had led them to meet and to discuss how to rectify the relations between these countries "from the root." They set out 10 points for the improvement of these relations.

The first point calls for "respecting and strengthening the sovereignty and independence of both Syria and Lebanon... The Syrian participants are demanding absolute Syrian recognition of Lebanon's independence, and the abandonment of all reservations [regarding this independence] and all ambiguous talk in this matter... All of us together [i.e. both the Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals] maintain that the first steps in this direction should be manifested by the final demarcation of the borders and by diplomatic representation between the two countries."

The second point stresses Syria's and Lebanon's right to regain their occupied territories, by all possible means. This will come "after Syria officially declares that the Shab'a Farms are Lebanese, under the U.N. resolution."

In the declaration, the intellectuals go on to demand respect for and the development of freedoms and human rights; the establishment of a state ruled by law and having institutions; and free and fair elections. They also demand regime change, and that Lebanon take control of all its territories. They call to establish democracy-based regimes in both countries, which, they say, will ensure that relations of equality and peace between the two countries will take root. They condemn political assassinations as a criminal means of dealing with oppositionists and of resolving political conflicts, and stress the need to facilitate the work of the international investigative committee on Al-Hariri's assassination.

The declaration condemns all forms of discrimination and violence against Syrian laborers in Lebanon, and demands that the Lebanese authorities punish offenders. It states: "Due to the problems caused to the two countries, and particularly due to the problems caused by the Syrian labor force in Lebanon... laws must be enacted to arrange for the labor force's [free] passage [between Syria and Lebanon]."

In another point of the declaration, the intellectuals demand that the Syrian authorities release all Lebanese prisoners and detainees in the Syrian prisons, and reveal the fate of the Lebanese who are missing.

The final point of the declaration states that "joint action to rectify relations between the countries... requires a reexamination of all the documents and agreements signed between the governments of the two countries..." [3]

II. Syrian Intellectuals Arrested Following the Publication of the Declaration

The Syrian regime was quick to condemn the declaration. Knowledgeable Syrian sources accused the Syrian signatories of having "damaged national Syrian interests in several respects." According to them, "the declaration [accuses] Syria of assassinating [former] Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, even before the international investigative committee has finished [its work]. Also, the declaration preceded [U.N.] Security Council Resolution No. l680, which calls for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon - while [the intellectuals] know Syria's position [on this matter], which is not opposed in principle but is calling [first] for the creation of a positive atmosphere." [4]

Syria's reaction to the declaration was not limited to mere statements, but was also expressed in a wave of arrests of some of the Syrian intellectuals who had signed the declaration. On May 15, 2006, three days after the declaration was issued, Syrian intellectual Michel Kilo, who is active in the Committees for Reviving the Civil Society and heads Hurriyat - The National Center for Defense of the Press and Journalists' Freedom in Syria, was arrested. 'Ammar Al-Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said that the Syrian authorities had arrested Kilo because he had signed the declaration. [5]

The reformist website reported that the investigating judge in Kilo's case, Raghid Tutunji, had "issued an arrest warrant for Kilo and accused him of violating Sections 191, 192, 276, 287, 288, and 307 [of the Syrian penal code, which refer to] punishments for offenses that are not considered criminal, and also Section 285 [which refers to criminal offenses]. These sections include acts such as: weakening national sentiment, arousing extremist ethnic or religious sentiment, publishing false or exaggerated news that might harm the honor or status of the state, condemning or insulting the president, the courts, the authorities, the military, [the public administration], or an official discharging public governance [in the framework] of his duty or his work." The website also reported that the severity of the punishment set out in these sections of the penal code ranged from detention to execution. [6]

A few days later, there were reports that 13 more Syrian signatories had been arrested in Syria, including: attorney Anwar Al-Bunni, Hurriyat Center spokesman and an active defender of freedom and human rights; Mahmoud Mer'i, secretary of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria; and Nidal Darwish, member of the presidential council of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria. [7] The London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that "the investigating judge... accused them of the same offenses of which he had accused the columnist Michel Kilo..." [8]

A June 20, 2006 announcement by the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria said that "Syrian Prime Minister Naji Al-'Utri published, on June 14, 2006, a decision... according to which 17 officials would be removed from their posts, without any reason being given." The announcement said further that "the assumption is that these [officials] were fired against the backdrop of their signing of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, or because of the support that they had expressed [for the declaration]..." It should be noted that the fired officials had worked at the Syrian Health Ministry, Education Ministry, Oil Ministry, Information Ministry, and Agriculture Ministry. [9]

*The Detainees' Deteriorating Health

On May 23, the Syrian website Akhbar Al-Sharq reported that a group of attorneys had paid a visit to the detainees who had signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, and a number of detained human rights activists, at the central 'Adra prison near Damascus. The report noted that "Anwar Al-Bunni... announced that he had been on a hunger strike since May 17, 2006 [the day he was arrested] in protest against his arrest. The attorneys also noted that at least two of the 10 detainees had been beaten after their arrest. The detainees said that their detention conditions were bad, as they were being held with criminals but not given the [rights] that criminal prisoners have." They also said that they were "not given a bed, a mattress, or blankets, and therefore had to sleep on the bare floor with no covering." [10]

The Syrian Human Rights Network announced that it had received "information that Anwar Al-Bunni, who is on hunger strike in prison, and also an additional number of recently arrested political prisoners, were suffering from deterioration in their health... [There is a danger] that Al-Bunni will completely collapse due to the hunger strike..." [11]

III. Syrian Government Press Criticizes the Beirut-Damascus Declaration

In addition to its arrests of signatories, the Syrian response to the Beirut-Damascus Declaration came also in the form of articles in the Syrian government press attacking the text of the declaration and its signatories.

The following are the main points of these articles:

*Teshreen: "Syrian and Lebanese Intellectuals Join the Evil Attack on Syria"

In an editorial, the Syrian government daily Teshreen wrote: "We are obliged, in times of distress and of overcoming Syria's pressures, to rebuke a number of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who have forgotten all Syria's victims and sacrifices for the sake of Lebanon, and have joined... the evil and open attack led by Bush's American administration against Syria. Perhaps we are entitled [to do more] than just rebuke these [intellectuals], who have not only ignored and forgotten what Syria has done for Lebanon in its times of distress and at the height of its tragedies, but have [even] tried - oddly - to blame Syria for the deterioration of the situation between the two countries...

"How odd it is, too, that these Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals today issue a declaration in which they hint that Syria is threatening Lebanon - and forget Israel, its destructive role, and its unceasing aggression. Does exonerating Israel and the Bush administration of blame for everything that has happened and is happening, and [instead] blaming Syria [for this], serve the interest of the two brother peoples? Why [did they issue this declaration] precisely at this time - while the American administration is applying its malicious pressure on the Security Council so that it will pass a resolution demanding that Syria establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon? [This, even though] a resolution of this kind is against the U.N. Charter and the international laws. Also, such a decision is unprecedented in international relations and constitutes gross interference in the of the countries' [internal] affairs.

"Nevertheless, we still think that a true nationalist intellectual understands the dimensions of the evil attack to which Syria is being subjected, and stands in the trenches defending Damascus's positions and national and pan-Arab policy." [12]

*The E.U. is "Sticking its Nose into Syria's Internal Affairs"

"Why does the E.U. - or, more precisely, some of the influential forces in it - want, for strictly egotistical reasons, to stick its nose into Syria's internal affairs, and violate Syrian national sovereignty? Why do these highly influential European forces want to cause damage to Syria, its people, and its history in this vulgar way? There is no justification for this, and we do not think that they are more concerned than we are about democracy, human rights, and the international conventions...

"Excuse me, Mr. Selfish European who lies in wait [for every opportunity]: Syria does not need your interference. It knows you and knows what you want [to achieve] by these shameful acts. Syria also knows how to defend its national unity and the interests of its sons. The day will come when you will stand and apologize to the Syrian people for what you have done, and for your service to Israel - the enemy of Syria, Lebanon, and the Arabs in general. You will doubtless be disappointed this time as well - because Syria will not bargain over its interests and its national and pan-Arab principles. It will not disdain [even] a single grain of its occupied lands, and difficult situations will only strengthen and immunize it..." [13]

IV. Syrian Journalists and Human Rights Organizations: Criticism of Arrests, Calls for Prisoners' Release

Syrian journalists and democracy and human rights organizations published articles and announcements scathingly critical of the Syrian regime and of the arrests of the intellectuals. They also called on the international community to intervene in order to bring about the release of all political prisoners in Syria.

The following are the main points of their arguments:

*Journalist Hakam Al-Baba: The Arrest of Democracy and Human Rights Activists in Syria is "Tarnishing Syria's Image"

Following Michel Kilo's arrest, Syrian journalist Hakam Al-Baba published a highly critical op-ed in which he referred to what he calls the surrealism in Syria - where democracy activists are arrested and tried easily, but an intelligence officer (i.e. General Rostom Ghazala) accused of assassinating former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri is defended "to the death" by the Syrian regime: "What is taking place in Syria today is the implementation in practice of the ideas of surrealism... because [Syria sets] impossible conditions for an intelligence officer such as Rostom Ghazala to appear before the international investigative committee [on Al-Hariri's assassination] and drives a hard bargain... to ensure [that he has] a comfortable interrogation in Vienna... while Michel Kilo is held, with no rights, at a branch of [Syrian] intelligence, with his only attorney being his relatives and friends...

"Isn't it surrealistic that Michel Kilo has spent more than half his life engaging in public affairs, yet all the wealth that he has accumulated stands at a few years in jail, long nights of fear, and accusations of treachery and of being an agent... while every director-general or minister appointed for a period of less than a year leaves [office owning] land, cars, villas, and funds in banks in locations from the equator to the North Pole?!

"Every day, the Syrian State Security Court sentences a democracy activist... They judge this one on charges of attempting to change the constitution by force, and they judge that one on charges of conspiring with a hostile country. This one is imprisoned on charges of rebellion against the socialist regime, and that one is imprisoned on charges of tarnishing Syria's image outside the country. Is there any tarnishing more shocking to Syria's image than the arrests and procedures of Syria's intelligence?!

"My heart is with Michel Kilo, who is subject to what every free journalist [in Syria] is subject, and who defends the journalists' freedom and independence. Kilo's arrest underlines how the Syria of 2006 has become the homeland of the surrealist movement - but in the political sphere!" [14]

*Kurdish-Syrian Publicist: The Attempt to "Stifle the Voices" Will Only "Add Fuel to the Fire"

In an op-ed, Kurdish-Syrian journalist Ibrahim Al-Yousef argued that Syria's arrests and attempt to "stifle the voices" will only increase the anger among the people and "would add fuel to the fire": "The illegal manner of the arrests requires everyone with a living conscience, and every free and honorable pen, to express solidarity with [the detainees]. This is for the sake of [attaining] a Syria with no oppressing arrests, and of making possible the longed-for democratic [internal] dialogue...

"What is certain is that if some of the security apparatuses think that, with these summonses and arrests, they can rein in those who express their opinion and can divert attention from what is happening all around, they are undoubtedly mistaken... [On the contrary:] Every new arrest will directly serve the opposite [purpose], because it will increase the anger in the [people's] souls, and will be nothing but a continuation of the apparatus of errors [that substitutes for] an attempt [by the Syrian regime] to end all the errors and the shameful violations...

"Indeed, the attempt to stifle the voices instead of talking [to them], to sow fear and horror in the souls [of the people], and to accuse the other of treason instead of listening to him... is an attempt whose failure has already been proven. [Yet] some of the 'wise guys' still think that this is the most effective prescription [for attaining] calm, and do not know that this way they are [actually] 'adding fuel to the fire' and firing resentment and anger in the souls around them. This is because [such arrests], which in the past were a magic solution, are no longer so... The arrests being made in this worrying manner will dismantle national unity... [and this] is the opposite of what the apparatus of the arrests seeks to achieve. All this and more bring us, without a doubt, to the necessity of reexamining this illegal and immoral activity, so as to preserve the honor of the best of Syria's sons..." [15]

*Syrian Democracy Activist Calls on the International Community to Act to Release Syria's Political Prisoners

The Syrian website Akhbar Al-Sharq reported that Mamoun Al-Houmsi, a former Syrian MP who was one of the Damascus Spring detainees, [16] had launched an international campaign to bring about the release of all of Syria's political prisoners. Al-Houmsi said: "At least 13 people were arrested during this wave [of arrests] - but there are hundreds of political prisoners, and we want them all released, as it is forbidden to imprison someone only because he expressed his opinion..."

Al-Houmsi also sent "a call to the free people of the world": "In these difficult days, when the Syrian regime has escalated its repression, its human rights violations, and [its behavior that is against] all the international conventions and practices, the signed agreements, and the Syrian constitution which guarantees freedom of expression by peaceful means, I left Syria bearing the call for the freedom of the [Syrian] prisoners [of conscience]. These people, who have devoted themselves and their families to freedom, are suffering oppression, injustice, and horror for the sake of [bearing] the message of freedom and of resistance to tyranny and corruption, and so that the Syrian people will enjoy the best of its land, equally and justly...

"In light of this difficult situation, the reason for which is the Syrian regime's disregard and ridicule of the world's calls to release the prisoners [of conscience], I came from 'Damascus Spring' to call on the international community to shoulder its responsibility and to effectively apply pressure... since [any delay] in taking crystal-clear stands will only increase the hatred that the [Syrian] regime permits toward these stands - and this hatred will be among the main causes of the extremism for which we will be the first to pay."

Al-Houmsi demanded that the European Parliament and the E.U. "apply pressure and employ more aggressive and effective stands, to save the lives of the prisoners [of conscience]..." [17]

*Temporary Committee of the Damascus Declaration: Kilo's Arrest Underlines the Regime's Tyranny

The Temporary Committee of the Damascus Declaration [18] issued an announcement harshly condemning the arrests, which it said were aimed at intimidating the Syrian people: "[Michel Kilo's arrest] by the Syrian authorities underlines the tyrannical nature of the regime, and of its way of repressing the people's rights and freedoms as well as democratic social and political activity aimed both at obtaining the broadest popular participation in determining the fate of the country and at extricating the country from the dire straits in which it is found because of the regime...

"[Kilo's] arrest came in the framework of a planned attack by the regime against the democratic intellectuals and against the political and social organizations. It was in order to sow fear, and to bring Syria back to the periods of silence [in Syria] - which remind Syrians of the atmosphere that prevailed in the 1980s, and the violent events [of that time]... We, in the capacity of [signatories to] the Damascus Declaration, condemn this oppressive and unjust arrest, and condemn the harm to the freedoms of all. We demand the release [of Kilo] and of all the political prisoners in Syria's prisons." [19]

*The National Salvation Front in Syria Calls for Intervention by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan

The National Salvation Front in Syria, the Syrian opposition group headed by former Syrian Vice President Abd Al-Halim Khaddam and Muslim Brotherhood in Syria leader 'Ali Sadr Al-Din Al-Bayanouni, issued an announcement condemning the arrests and calling on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to intervene to stop the repression by the Syrian regime. The announcement read: "The Syrian security apparatuses, at the instruction of the country's president Bashar Al-Assad, are conducting an extensive wave of arrests of Syrian citizens. [These arrests have] included many of those who express their opinions, and human rights activists, who have demanded that democracy be implemented, that human rights be upheld, and that there be an end to the suffering of the Syrian people that has continued for more than four decades. [The arrests are being carried out] using the Emergency Law and the judicial system which has been corrupted by the regime and turned into a security apparatus. The oppressive measures being taken by the Syrian regime, by order of the president, are against all the international conventions to which Syria is a signatory, and particularly to those concerning human rights, the spread of democracy, and the establishment of justice and equality among citizens." [20]

**H. Varulkar is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

[1] During the National Dialogue meetings in Lebanon, which began in March, 2006, the leaders of all the Lebanese parties and factions decided to demarcate Lebanon's border with Syria and also to establish diplomatic relations with it. Also, on May 17, 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution No. 1680, which demands that Syria comply with the Lebanese government's request regarding border demarcation and diplomatic representation. Syria claims that it has no objection to these in principle, but that it was still too early to discuss diplomatic relations, and that such relations would be formed under the appropriate circumstances and the right atmosphere. On April 7, 2006, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'alam stated, "It is too early to talk about establishing diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon, and the contacts and trade relations between the two countries are developed [to a level that] makes the embassies unnecessary." Teshreen (Syria), May 18, 2006; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 7, 2006.

[2] There are several conflicting reports regarding the number of signatories on the Beirut-Damascus Declaration. Some reports say 274, while others say 500.

[3], May 12, 2006.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), May 21, 2006.

[5] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 16, 2006.

[6] According to Section 285 of Syria's Penal Code, "anyone who harms the honor of the state and the national sentiment, and also anyone who, in time of war or in time when war is expected to break out, carries out acts aimed at weakening the national sentiment, will be punished by imprisonment for a certain period.", May 23, 2006.

[7] The other intellectuals arrested were: Khalil Hussein, top official in the Kurdish Future (Al-Mustaqbal) movement in Syria; Mahmoud 'Issa, who was imprisoned from 1992-2000 for belonging to the Communist Labor Party; and other human rights activists: Akram Al-Bunni, Khaled Khalifa, Suleiman Al-Shammar, Kamal Sheikho, Abbas Abbas, Ghaleb 'Amer, Safwan Tayfour, and Muhammad Mahfouz, who is affiliated with the Hurriyat Center. It should be noted that on May 23, 2006, the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported that Khaled Khalifa, Abbas Abbas, and Kamal Sheikho were released. Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 19, 2006; Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 18, 2006; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 18, 2006; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 18. 2006.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 22, 2006.

[9] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), June 20, 2006.

[10] The Akhbar Al-Sharq website is a non-governmental Syrian site operated by the Levant Institute in London, which is directed by Ubeida Nahhas, who is close to Muslim Brotherhood in Syria leader 'Ali Sadr Al-Din Al-Bayanouni., May 23, 2006.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), May 30, 2005.

[12] Teshreen (Syria), May 17, 2006.

[13] Teshreen (Syria), May 21, 2006.

[14] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 16, 2006.

[15], May 18, 2006.

[16] "Damascus Spring" is a term for the political awakening that took place in Syria with Bashar Al-Assad's assumption of power, in June 2000. In the course of one year, many public bodies promoting democracy and civil society were established across Syria, including the Jamal Al-Atasi Forum, which in January 2001 declared itself an NGO for democratic discourse. In September 2000, a statement by 99 Syrian intellectuals called for the abolition of the state of emergency in Syria, the release of political prisoners, and the advancement of political and civil reforms. In July 2001, the establishment of the Syrian Human Rights Association was declared, and attorney Haithem Al-Maleh was elected chairman. Expectations for reform, however, began to fade when in August 2001 the Syrian authorities launched a series of arrests of reformist activists, and sentenced them to years in prison.

[17], June 14, 2006.

[18] In October 2005, an alliance among Syrian parties, forces, and oppositionists signed the "Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change." The document stresses the need for democratic change in Syria and for the end of the military regime that has controlled the Syrian people for over 30 years. The declaration calls, inter alia, for the establishment of a democratic government in Syria, the elimination of Emergency Law, the release of all political prisoners, and a solution to the Kurdish problem. The signatories included the Committees for Reviving Civil Society, the Kurdish Democratic Front in Syria, the National Democratic Union in Syria, the Syrian Committee for Human Rights, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.

[19], May 15, 2006.

[20] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 19, 2006.

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