Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ex-Political Prisoners Remain Outcasts

(09-Jan-09)
By IWPR
Fatih Jamous used to have a successful career as an engineer at a factory in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. But after serving 18 years in jail for belonging to the outlawed Communist Labour Party, he found he had no employment rights.



“I suffered a lot trying to get a job,” he said, explaining how following his release in 2000, he spent several years trying to win reinstatement as an engineer so he could resume his old profession.



Fatih had been convicted of showing “hostility to the goals of the revolution”, seeking to divide the Syrian state by calling for rights for the Kurds, and maintaining links with a covert organisation.



He finally found a way of earning a living by lending money to people who put up coastal villas as security, but even then, the security services placed obstacles in his path by warning his business partners not to work with him.



Fatih’s case is typical of the experience of former political prisoners who are stripped off their civil rights for years after their release. Individuals can be deprived of their rights for ten years.



Mahmoud Marai, a Damascus-based lawyer, explained that this exclusion means former prisoners are legally barred from getting jobs in the public sector, voting and standing for election, and heading associations.



Even if they are not forbidden to travel, the fact they are not issued with passports means they are effectively prevented from leaving Syria.



“Deprivation of civil rights constitutes additional punishment,” said Razan Zaitouna, a lawyer and civil rights advocate.



Zaitouna noted that in theory, ex-convicts could apply to the court that originally sentenced them to have their civil rights restored either after three years or after seven for more serious crimes.



But Marai said the courts are sometimes reluctant to accede to such requests when the case was seen as political.



Muhammed Ghanim, 55, has been waiting for two years to be granted the right to return to his job as a primary school teacher.



Ghanim, who is also a writer and journalist, had been a teacher for 30 years before he was charged with disparaging the Syrian and imprisoned for six months.



“I was not allowed to do my job for two years by the security services,” he said. “I am now waiting for the disciplinary court in Aleppo to decide whether I should be allowed to resume work or be dismissed.”



Human rights activists says the authorities have no justification for applying sanctions to political prisoners even after they have been released.



“It is an oppressive measure,” said Radif Mustafa, a lawyer who chairs the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights. “They shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place. Most of them are civil rights activists who haven’t committed any crime that would be punishable under a just law that respects human rights and international conventions.”



Former political prisoners – many of them journalists, scientists and academics – find life on the outside difficult as the employment restrictions mean they end up washing dishes, working as waiters, or selling lottery tickets and tobacco in the street.



Social attitudes to them range from pity to contempt.



Hussein Dawood was a sociology student before he was jailed for two years after he was found guilty of working with Kurdish rights groups and taking part in anti-Syrian demonstrations in Europe.



After his release in 2002, Dawood found worked as a tailor in a small factory, but his boss sacked him after discovering he was a former political prisoner.



“I served my time and I’m done with it, but the consequences still pursue me,” said Dawood, now 37.



“Long hours of arduous work have killed off all of my dreams and hopes. I can think of nothing except sleeping and eating, and the work that awaits me in the morning,” he said.



Although he was allowed to finish his university studies, he is finding it difficult to make ends meet. He stands in Damascus’s buzzing Al-Hamra Street for long hours every day selling antiques and china, earning the equivalent of six US dollars a day, which is not enough to pay for his food and rent.



Even so, Dawood remains hopeful for the future.



“These laws haunt us like a ghost even after we are released from prison,” he said. “We don’t regret the past, but we aspire to a new future for ourselves and our children.”



Jamous has little reason to be optimistic, since he may lose all the retirement benefits he built up over the years he worked as an engineer.



But he still tries to look ahead. With money borrowed from some friends and his son, he is thinking of opening a small café in Wadi Qindeel, a tourist area on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, so he can support himself and his wife in their later years.



“They cannot defeat us with these sentences,” he said. “Civil rights are not only about elections; they are about intellect, education, and freedom, too.”



(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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