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

Future Looks Grim for Syrian Activists

As western officials court Syria, human rights appear low on the agenda.

As he dragged his frail body across the military courtroom flanked by two policemen, it seemed like harsh detention conditions and old age had stolen the sparkle from the eyes of 78-year-old prominent human rights activist Haitham al-Maleh. His pride, nevertheless, seemed untouched. As he dragged his frail body across the military courtroom flanked by two policemen, it seemed like harsh detention conditions and old age had stolen the sparkle from the eyes of 78-year-old prominent human rights activist Haitham al-Maleh.

His pride, nevertheless, seemed untouched.

The start of Maleh’s trial on charges of “weakening the national sentiment” and “spreading false information” – the classic set of vague accusations made against political activists by the regime - passed almost unnoticed on February 22.

He had been detained since October following an interview he gave to an opposition TV station based in Dubai.

The media spotlight was on Syria last week but the focus was elsewhere. The world’s attention was centred on the wisdom of Washington’s new policy of engagement towards Damascus, and whether the strong ties between Iran and Syria could realistically be broken especially after a recent visit by the Iranian president affirmed the solidity of bilateral relations.

The human rights record of Syria is of no interest, sadly.

Outside the military court where Maleh was being judged, a small group of western diplomats waited for updates. They were prevented from attending the trial at this kangaroo court, where prisoners of conscience are tried under military emergency laws in effect since 1963.

Although they have been monitoring similar cases for years now, western diplomats have done little for human rights activists in Syria.

Hardly a day goes by without a new arrest, trial or travel ban among the ranks of peaceful dissidents. Internet sites continue to be blocked and controversial conferences are cancelled even when they are not related to politics.

And while the prospects for civil rights advocates continue to be gloomy, the buzz at the presidential palace as western officials court Syria and praise its putative role in supporting stability and peace in the region is relentless.

Syria has shaken off years of international pressure and isolation. The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, which was blamed on Damascus, is history now.

Damascus is now awaiting the arrival of the new United States ambassador after a five-year hiatus. France has recently signed several economic deals with Syria and the stream of European and American delegations goes on.

One might wonder why the atmosphere of international openness towards Syria had not led the government to relax its tight grip on civil rights activities.

The security apparatus seems to be in an inexplicable state of maximum alert.

Consider the case of Raghida Said Hassan. The 38-year-old writer and mother of two has been held by the authorities since February 10. Amnesty International has taken up her case and says she may be at risk of torture.

"We suspect that Raghida’s arrest is related to her intention to publish a novel about sensitive political issues, as well as to suspicions that she is active in an opposition party," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Another victim is Dr Tohama Ma'rouf, a dentist, who was detained on February 7. It was said that 15 years ago she was sentenced to six years in prison for being a member of the outlawed communist party. She served a year and then was released thanks to her connections. Now the authorities are saying that she should serve the rest of the sentence even though she abandoned politics long ago.

One theory explaining the recent wave of oppression is that the regime is now relaxed in its relations with the West and feels empowered to silence the remaining voices of dissent inside the country.

The West’s interest in Syria is of a purely strategic nature. It aims mainly to eliminate Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the resistance groups fighting Israel in the region.

The focus has shifted away from changing internal Syrian politics. The previous US plan of spreading democracy in the Middle East, spearheaded by President George W Bush, proved to be totally flawed.

In addition, the West clearly wants a stable Syria because regime change would have uncertain and uncontrollable consequences.

But stability based on oppression is a time bomb.

Damascus has managed to persuade the world that the majority of Syrians prefer security to freedom as it continues to marginalise the opposition and cut it off from the ordinary people who chose silence long ago.

Ten years ago, I remember asking Maleh what his thoughts were on the future of Syria under the new presidency.

That was when a young Bashar al-Assad had succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, and Syrians had hoped for a new dawn after decades of injustice, corruption and monopoly of power.

Maleh seemed unimpressed. He said he doubted real change would come and he stressed he was determined to continue the struggle for better human rights in Syria as relentlessly as before.

Maleh’s scepticism about the new dawn has proved true again and again.

The point is, whether Damascus feels relaxed or pressured, whether it wants good or bad relations with the West, the bitter reality of the pro-democracy movement will not change.

Trials, repression and arrests will continue as long as there are no popular calls for rights and freedoms to be respected.

A handful of activists, half of whom are in prison, cannot open the door to democracy. They can only make a small hole to let in some of the light of hope. I would like to believe that at least we are not in total darkness.