Syrian activists refuse to bow

Rights: Despite decades of repression, a few Syrians bravely speak out for freedom -- and say U.S. sanctions won't help them get it.

Lebanon and Syria 2004

By Kathy Lally

June 10, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Mild-mannered, frail and slightly bent, Riad al-Turk stood straight and powerful before the ruthless Syrian regime, preferring to spend 17 years in solitary confinement rather than renounce his political beliefs and bow to the will of a police state.

He was tortured, endured three stretches in prison and sacrificed health and family life, all for an ideology with no prospect of success.

"He's a communist, and communism in Syria is not a popular idea," says Omar Amiralay, a filmmaker who greets Turk with a reverent kiss on each cheek. "But people know he is an honest figure. People respect him because he is an ex-prisoner, and they admire him as a symbol of resistance to the state."

Now 74, Turk was willing to give up everything in pursuit of the freedom to speak his mind and change his government democratically, the very ideals the United States says it is trying to encourage in this part of the world. Yet he and other human rights activists say U.S. policy toward Syria works against them.

Two weeks ago, President Bush imposed sanctions on Syria, accusing it of allowing foreign fighters to cross its borders on the way to Iraq and of pursuing a chemical weapons program. The United States demanded a stop to Syrian support of extremists and an end to chemical weapons activity.

The sanctions were largely symbolic -- banning commercial flights and exports to Syria except for food and medicine -- but rights activists here say the message is harmful. Attacks by Washington strengthen the regime, they say. And in this part of the world, few see benefits to doing what the United States wants.

"Let's imagine the Syrian regime acceded to American demands," Turk says. "Does that mean democracy would be there for Syria? I doubt it."

Amiralay, who works mostly in France, says the Syrian regime thrives on having an external threat.

"Sanctions against Syria will strengthen the stubborn wing inside the Syrian government," he says, "because from the moment it took power it ruled by virtue of external threats. So the moment any external threat looms on the horizon, that means postponement of any kind of change. They would say we need internal unity to confront external danger."

Yassin el-Hajj Saleh, a writer and rights activist who spent 16 years in jail, says that sanctions do not hurt those in charge. "Sanctions will hurt the Syrian people," he says, "and not the mafia controlling Syria."

In pursuit of reform

Not so long ago, few dared to praise Turk or other political prisoners openly, or even hint at differences with the authorities. Those boundaries have become less clear since Bashar Assad took over the Syrian presidency from his late father, Hafez el Assad, who had ruled with a terrifying hand for 30 years.

Turk, who had been in jail from 1959 to 1961 and from 1980 to 1998, was free but still suspect when the younger Assad made it known that he was in favor of some reforms. That suggestion set off what became known as "Damascus Spring," a period of ferment and more open discussion around the country.

The buds were soon nipped. Turk was rearrested in September 2001 and imprisoned for 15 months.

"I was arrested, as far as I understand, because I gave a lecture and the content of the lecture provoked the oppressive centers of power," he says. "I proposed a program for democratic changes in Syria."

Turk wants Assad to abolish martial law, which makes it illegal to "oppose the goals of the revolution" or try to "change the economic or social structure of the state." And he wants the regime to apologize for attacks against suspected Islamists during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when thousands of people were killed.

"Without these two proposals, the opposition cannot trust Bashar," Turk says. "These steps are needed to restore trust and confidence."

Assad has refused.

Turk says he was arrested in 1980 because the authorities accused his Communist Party, which had broken off from the pro-Soviet communists, of collaborating with the Islamic Brotherhood. His faction, he says, advocated a peaceful path to a democratic society.

"I stayed 17 years in solitary confinement," he says. "They asked me to write a letter of apology to the president, but I said no."

To endure those 17 years alone, Turk says, he had to force himself never to think of his family or friends. Such thoughts would only weaken him.

"Of course, human beings are social beings," he says, "but I am a member of a party and I want my views to be heard. So I was telling myself I had to sacrifice myself for freedom and democracy."

His means of survival -- learning to kill time -- gives chilling meaning to that well-used phrase. He had to obliterate time.

"I didn't want to think," Turk says. "Think of what, my family, my friends? These thoughts would be a means to weaken my spirit. So I invented many means to kill time."

The lentil soup served to prisoners every day was full of small stones, so he used them to make mosaic designs. He made objects out of matchsticks and scratched pictures on a piece of white cloth.

And he survived. Today, he is still taking risks, still testing boundaries, still insisting on saying what he thinks.

"We are looking forward to a world where people live in a democratic way," Turk says. "We should struggle always against this oppressive system. It should fall."

There is demand for reform in Syria, says Saleh, the writer and human rights activist, though most people are afraid to articulate that too loudly. Talk became still quieter when Assad appeared to back off his initial enthusiasm for reform after his first year in office and Turk and others were arrested again in 2001.

"Syria is a poor country," Saleh says. "About 60 percent of the people live below the poverty line. Living standards are more important for them."

The American role

But there is something there for the West to nurture, Saleh says, though the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have made it more difficult for the United States to take on that role.

"Now it's easy to say that those Americans who speak so much about human rights are cynically using it to gain in other areas, not human rights," Saleh says. "American policy is always ready to sacrifice human rights in return for political gains."

For most people in the region, says Anwar al-Bunni, a lawyer who defends human rights activists, one issue -- the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- dominates all others. Syrians, he says, perceive the United States as so firmly in Israel's camp that it will not consider the Palestinian point of view. And that makes a resolution unattainable.

"For many Syrians, this issue is more important than any internal affair," he says. "The American people should contribute to finding a fair solution."

Saleh says that Bush has made that perception stronger by offering Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even more than he has asked from the United States. The Syrian government and others, Saleh says, use the image of suffering Palestinians to demonstrate that the West is allied against the Arab world.

"The best way to support human rights in Arab countries is to resolve the Palestinian issue," Saleh says. "This is your answer to 'Why do they hate us?' It's one side, but it's the main side."