Syria, the Way Forward:
House of Lords, 1st April 2008
Republic of Fear and Silence
Muhydin Lazikani


At the beginning, I would like to draw your attention to an interview published in The Wall Street journal a few days ago (27th March 08) with Rami Makhloof, the cousin of the Syrian President and Financial Advisor of the ruling family. He complained that the USA did not treat him fairly: it froze his funds and advised American companies not to deal with him as he is regarded as part of the corrupt Syrian “Mafia”, which has monopolised successful business and prevented Syrian people from the opportunities of free trade and fair competition in all areas of production and trade.
I chose to start with mentioning this interview to highlight the common mistake we all make when we discuss human rights: we always focus on political oppression, prisons and torture. We drown in reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Article 19. Yet we forget that there are millions of simple Syrians whose human rights are violated daily: rights such as expression, travel, promotion and obtaining work complementary to their qualifications and skills. In Syria, the principles of fair work were confiscated before political freedoms, and prevented its people from fair work by abolishing the right of citizenship altogether. Syrians now fall into classes, and the lucky classes are those closest to the establishments. Benefits are given, not based on need and eligibility, but rather in return for services and support for the brutal government.
In this Republic of Fear and Silence, there is no such thing as equality before the Law. The Law only exists on paper. But in reality, the judiciary and the government are the same. All men of law, most of whom belong to the Ba’th Party, receive their instructions from the Party leadership, or from heads of security who exercise unfair imprisonment, torture, and long detention without trial, all without referral to the legal system. There are prisoners held without charge or trial for years, sometimes reaching a quarter of a century. There are countless stories of people being imprisoned for years without charge and eventually being released never knowing why they had spent so much of their lives behind bars.
The American State Department report released in the second week of March placed Syria in the worst 10 countries for violating human rights. Meanwhile, the French Correspondents Sans Frontiers had placed it as number 155 out of 166 worst countries in violating freedom of expression, and the Berlin-based International Transparency Organisation always placed Syria in a low rank in terms of transparency and fighting corruption. None of this is surprising since oppression is always accompanied by corruption. Syrians have lived under emergency rule since 1962. This has enabled all regimes since then to violate the most basic rights for its people. Many attempts have been made to lift the emergency rule with no avail. The rulers have always found this an ideal tool in controlling opposition and establishing their rule of oppression. However, the rulers always alluded to the contrary: In 1990 President Hafez Assad, the father of the current president, gave a public speech in which he ordered his government to lighten emergency rule and only use them in case of threat to state security. This had no effect on the security forces, who continued to arrest and detain anyone calling for freedom of expression or democracy. A similar thing happened a few years before when he gave a speech calling for ending corruption and the independence of the Judiciary. A few days after the speech he dissolved the union of lawyers and arrested 60 of its members. He then proceeded to dissolve all other professional unions and re-form them in a way more fitting for the Ruling party.
The difference between Father Assad and his son, Bashar is a difference in degree rather than in style or principle. Nor is it, as Flaynt Lefriet, the author of Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire, proposed, a difference in degree of atrocity alone.
It is true that Bashar Assad has not demolished entire villages nor committed mass massacres like his father. However, human rights are much the same as they were in his father’s reign. The emergency rule has not been lifted or modified, the law allowing for multiple political parties has not come into place. Continuous unexplained incarcerations are still taking place, one of the latest being members of the Damascus Declaration for Peaceful Democratic Change. They joined a long list of prisoners of conscience, estimated by Patrick Seale the biographer of the father Assad, to reach 5000 political prisoners. This situation makes Syria comparable to Franco’s Spain and Ceauşescu’s Romania. The massacres are only surpassed by the deposed Iraqi regime and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia.
Amnesty International has enumerated in one of its reports 38 methods of torture in Syrian prisons, most of which are still in use. In 2005, I presented an edition of the Syrian Opposition program, “Date with the future”, focusing on torture in Syrian prisons. There were many painful first-hand testaments by political prisoners who were tortured under the current regime. This emphasizes that changing the head of government does not mean changing the political status quo. The prisons remain, and the courts are still dictated by the ruling party, particularly the Supreme State Security Court, which continues to pass the Death Penalty to anyone found guilty of belonging to the Islamic Brotherhood, under Law No. 49, passed in 1980.
This is a very unique Act as, to my knowledge, there is no other place in the world that has such a severe punishment for merely belonging to a political group. This is particularly serious, as the decisions of the Supreme State Security Court are final, and there is no room for appeal. This is another major hurdle in the way of anyone attempting reform, as the effective rule of Syria pays no regard to its written constitution, even though this constitution was tailor-made for the government of the late President Assad in 1973.

Clause 28 of the constitution, for example, bans torture. Yet torture has never left Syrian prisons, even though Syria has signed the 1969 International Treaty for Political and Civic Rights. Clause 39 of the constitution permits peaceful demonstrations, and formation of political parties and organisations, yet the only organization permitted in Syria is the “National Progressive Front” which was formed by the late President Assad as mere decoration to complement his rule. As for peaceful demonstrations, they have never been allowed, not in the time of Hafez Assad nor his son, quite the contrary, any demonstrators that dare are met with the most brutal security response. This was seen in the demonstration outside the Palace of Justice in 2007, where demonstrators called for ending emergency rule. Those peaceful demonstrators are assaulted by security forces that are above the law, the country falls prey to a whole set of plagues that are difficult to get rid of.

And with this dark history of the Syrian regime, we must not forget to highlight the plight of the Syrian Kurds who are denied Syrian citizenship after a 1962 census that prevented almost half a million people from citizenship rights in their own country, due to random ideological reasons. I need to draw your attention to the fact the Syrian prisons do not only hold Syrians, but also Palestinians, Jordanians Lebanese and Saudis. The Syrian Observatory for human rights holds many files on the suffering of these and Syrian prisoners of conscience under a regime whose oppression reached into neighbouring lands.
There is no reason why the regime can explain this brutally oppressive rule, as most opposition movements have for a long time rejected violence and called for peaceful change, the kind of spirit that the current president Assad promised to support and promote at the start of his reign. He has not fulfilled a single promise from his first speech to the nation in June 2000. Since he came to power, he confiscated the Damascus Spring Movement, arrested some people who signed Statement ’99 and Statement 1000. He ordered the closure of any political platforms in the country, and when the Syrian opposition gathered under the umbrella of the Damascus Declaration, the regime used all its power to crush this movement.
The latest wave of arrests hit the leaders of this peaceful democratic coalition at the end of last year when their national congress held a meeting in December to elect a new general council within a democratic setting showcasing the validity and credibility of Syrian opposition. A week after this meeting, an arrest campaign was launched by the government on the leaders and council members, most of whom either spent months detained without charge, or were charged with accusations such as “spreading of vicious rumours aimed at defaming the nation and weakening its spirit”. And there are reports confirming the torture of at least three of these members: Yasir Al-Etti, Ahmad Toma and Ali Abdullah.
After the arrests of the leadership of the Damascus Declaration, the state deported the husband of Fida Horany, the president of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration. They also arrested Ryad Saif (former member of the Syrian parliament’s and mistreated him despite his poor health. The government had previously refused international calls for allowing Ryad Saif to travel abroad to obtain treatment for prostate cancer, which has now reached very late stages. Fida Horany herself is also reported to suffer from severe health problems, and so is the Professor Aref Dalila, who has been in solitary confinement for more than 5 years.
For these brave souls of the opposition, some of whom we may lose soon, there has not been any serious international effort to apply pressure on the Syrian government to relieve their suffering. They are paying the price of opposing a reactionary regime that refuses to practice any rule of governing other than that of oppressive security rule.
Britain and the E.U. can do a great deal to apply pressure on the Syrian regime to restrict its reign of oppression and relieve the suffering people of Syria. The least we can ask for is for these countries to deal with the true representatives of the Syrian people, and refuse dealing with representatives of the corrupt oppressive regime. There exists a British-Syrian society headed by Sir Andrew Green with Dr. Fawaz Al-Akhras, the father-in-law of President Bashar Assad. A number of British MPs are linked to this society. We cannot but ask how the conscience of the representatives of such an old and exemplary democracy allows them to mingle so closely with representatives of a regime notorious for being one of the worst in terms of human right abuses?
And here we urge you not to treat the Syrian opposition as a human rights case, but as a force for change. Through the Wall Street Journal interview with Rami Makhloof that I mentioned at the start of my speech, the Syrian regime gives a clear threat in the statement: “Now my name is publicly linked with enterprises that I admit owning, in the future there will be new entities of which you will not be able to prove my ownership.” This ability to hide and deceive applies to commercial entities as it applies to the true state of affairs within Syria. We only see the surface that can be affected and changed by the regime. And we will never know the full truth of crimes and oppression committed by the regime without strong and consistent international pressure. This includes, as an example, an explanation of the mass disappearances: there are 17,000 people who have ‘disappeared’ over the past 25 years, and the government has consistently refused to give any information on their whereabouts or fate.
These mass arrests and murders have, sadly, weaved the current Syrian entity, and we need to unravel it and re-weave it. But we can only do this after the reign of oppression is replaced and the Syrian people regain their basic rights. Then, and only then can, Syria begin its long delayed journey towards freedom