The Injustice of Travel Bans

Hundreds of activists not allowed to leave the country, despite constitutional right to freedom of movement

The Injustice of Travel Bans

Hundreds of activists not allowed to leave the country, despite constitutional right to freedom of movement

Friday, 4 December, 2009
The message from a Syrian security officer was a blow, since I already had the European visa I needed in my passport. “You are not permitted to travel,” he said.

In recent years, Syrian authorities have stepped up punitive measures against activists. In addition to intimidation and imprisonment, officials have banned more than 400 human rights advocates, political dissidents, journalists and intellectuals from travelling.

This unlawful action is mostly used to prevent Syrians from participating in conferences or meetings abroad, according to a recent study by the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, a non-governmental organisation.

The Syrian constitution guarantees the right of individuals to circulate freely in and out of the country. Legally, only a court order can prevent a citizen from travelling because he is a suspect in a criminal or financial case.

Sadly, today the various security services have the upper hand. They can decide to keep some of us behind bars and detain the rest in a country that is one vast open prison.

Many of my friends have been prohibited from travelling, sometimes with tragic consequences. Fares Mourad, who had spent 29 years in jail as a prisoner of conscience, died from an illness in March after the authorities refused to allow him to receive medical care abroad.

Another activist cannot leave to visit his wife and children who live in Europe.

The first time I realised my freedom of movement was restricted was when I tried to drive to neighbouring Lebanon some years ago to take part in an event organised by a civil rights group.

When I handed my identification documents to the officer in charge, he yelled at me and told me to follow him to his superior’s office.

I thought they would throw me in jail. The ranking officer started hurling questions: have you done your military service? Do you have problems with the security? Are you a criminal?

It soon dawned on me that, like many of my colleagues in the civil rights movement, I had been banned from travelling.

I was told that I needed a stamp of approval from a certain branch of the security services before I could go abroad. I had mixed feelings as I took back my identity card; at least they did not lock me up.

Later, I tried to use connections and friends to plead with the authorities to allow me just one trip abroad. I was sad to have to turn down one opportunity after another to take part in conferences and training courses in Europe or other Arab countries.

Every time I went into a security office to check if the ban had been lifted, I worried that they would not let me out.

Long hours of interrogation left me worn out. Their questions were repetitive and sometimes stupid: Why do you want to travel? Will you meet dissidents? Will you come back? I always tried to keep calm and give consistent answers.

I met all kinds of security officers. Some were relatively polite while others were harsh. Some officials nodded, others accused me of lying and threatened to put me in jail.

The thought of toning down my political activities crossed my mind but I never really considered abandoning the struggle.

They never properly told me why I was banned from leaving but as is customary for Syrian security officers, they tried to lure me into becoming an informant. The idea of betraying my family and friends was out of the question. I will never collaborate.

With the help of a friend, I applied recently for a highly prized grant to study in Europe, trying to ignore the travel ban.

I got the grant and the country where I would study gave me a visa but the response of the Syrian authorities again and again ended all my dreams.

The prospect of leaving for a while, forgetting about the violence of the security officials and of the fear of interrogation and solitary confinement, meant a lot to me.

I wanted for once to experience life without the pressure of emergency laws or simply to fall in love with a European woman and tell her I love her in her own language.

But I will not let them rob me of my dreams and all the beautiful European scenes I imagined. I will keep on dreaming that my situation and that of my entire nation will change one day.

Dreams can come true.

The author is a journalist who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of prosecution.
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