'Illegal' Travel Bans Imposed on Syrian Dissidents

Authorities are introducing restrictions as form of pressure, say activists.

'Illegal' Travel Bans Imposed on Syrian Dissidents

Authorities are introducing restrictions as form of pressure, say activists.

Thursday, 25 June, 2009
Mazen Darwish is not exactly a political prisoner.

But for more than two years, this human rights activist has been confined within the borders of his country.

Darwish, who heads the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, discovered he was banned from leaving Syria when he tried to board a plane to Morocco in April 2007.

As he was on his way to participate in activities related to International Press Freedom Day, officials at the airport told him that there was an order from security officials forbidding him from traveling.

“It was an attempt to hamper my work and limit its scope,” said Darwish.

Since then, in spite of complaining several times to the authorities, Darwish is not allowed to participate in any events outside Syria. He is even barred from leaving to visit his wife and two children in France where they currently live.

For the past two years, the Syrian authorities have increasingly resorted to a systematic policy of preventing dissidents and activists traveling outside the country – according to a dozen civil rights advocates cited in an extensive study published by Darwish’s media centre in May.

The reason is not only to restrict the reach of activists’ work, but also to inflict a form of “punishment” and “pressure”, they say.

The Syrian embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations .

“These travel bans are an absolutely illegal procedure,” said Khalil Maatouk, a Damascus-based lawyer, who is also prevented from leaving the country.

“It is a form of pressure exerted on civil-rights activists to coerce them to stop their activities,” he added.

The media centre study, which was released in May, said that that least 414 individuals are banned from travelling – mainly as a result of being involved, in one form or another, in political or human rights activities.

According to the results, while those affected come from a wide spectrum of Syrian society – and include lawyers, doctors, students and journalists – the majority are Kurdish intellectuals and activists.

Kurds, who constitute less than ten per cent of the Syrian population, are subject to restrictions by authorities on their cultural, linguistic and political activities, say international human rights groups.

The survey also revealed that nine per cent of the bans are imposed on women.

Advocates of civil rights say that travel bans are imposed arbitrarily, without clear criteria being followed. Sometimes individuals are sanctioned merely for having participated in a single public political or human rights event, they say.

Security bureaus compile lists of the people they want to prevent from traveling and send them to those officials in charge of issuing passports, according to Ayham Wanous, an official at the passports and immigration department.

The media centre study indicated that during the Eighties, travel bans were regularly imposed as an additional punishment against Islamist and leftist political prisoners following their release from jail.

However, in recent years, security bureaus have again resorted to this measure – this time in order to monitor the activities of intellectuals and activists abroad, noted the study.

It said that individuals spotted on security lists and wishing to travel are stopped at the airport or while trying to get a passport, and are then told to refer to the security bureau that issued the ban to lift it.

In many cases, security officials granted activists the permission to travel again on the condition they submitted information about conferences and meetings they were attending abroad, said the study.

For the advocates, this measure is a violation of the Syrian constitution and the international human rights conventions that Syria has ratified.

Maatouk argued that the judiciary is the only body entitled to impose travel bans – usually against suspects or those convicted of crimes to stop them from leaving the country before they face trial or serve jail sentences.

Travel bans can also be enforced on those charged of paying fines or debts to ensure they will meet their financial obligations, he noted.

Advocates say there was no provision in Syrian law under which travel bans can be issued against dissidents or human rights activists.

Many people prevented from leaving the country have turned to the judiciary to try and lift travel bans, say legal experts.

Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and a human rights activist, discovered that she was barred from traveling while she was being interrogated by a security bureau in 2002.

She then filed a lawsuit to overturn the ban.

Although she won the case, the interior ministry obstructed the enforcement of the court ruling allowing her to go abroad.

“Since then I haven’t inquired about my status,” said Zaitouneh. “I will not do anything [about my case], I will just join the collective efforts of civil rights associations to lift travel bans on all of us.”

Many of those interviewed by the media centre study said that they were banned from traveling even for personal reasons like visiting family members, pursuing their studies or seeking medical treatment.

An extreme case is that of Fares Mourad who spent 29 years in jail for belonging to the outlawed Arab Communist Organisation.

Mourad, who was prevented from receiving medical treatment outside the country upon his release from prison, died from his illness in March.

Some of those cited in the study say their travel has been restricted, even though they have not been involved in any political or human rights activities.

“I was shocked when they told me at Damascus airport that I could not travel,” said novelist and critic Nabil Suleiman.

Suleiman, who was heading to Kuwait in March to attend a literary lecture, said the ban was issued by the political security branch of Syria's intelligence apparatus.
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