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

Kilo Pledges to Continue Struggle

Freed human rights activist determined to fight for greater freedom in country.
By IWPR
A few hours after his release from prison, Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian intellectual and journalist, sat among his family and friends telling stories about his daily life while he was incarcerated.



Appearing in high spirits, Kilo – who spent three years in jail for “threatening national sentiment” and “inciting sectarian strife” – spoke jokingly about one cellmate who cooked better than all the women he had known.



He created a lighthearted atmosphere, making all those who came to welcome him in his home in Damascus feel at ease.



Kilo was discharged on May 19 after completing his sentence.



His release came as a reminder of the tens of prisoners of conscience still languishing in Syrian jails, said human rights groups.



One of Kilo’s friends and a political activist, who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity, said he hadn’t changed a bit during his time in prison.



“One could disagree with some of his political visions, but would keep respecting him all the [time],” said the friend.



In statements made to the media a few hours after his release, Kilo, a father of three, said he would continue to work with Syrian civil society to promote more freedom in his country. He added that he had not lost his enthusiasm for this despite the years he spent behind bars.



He said that he intended to focus on getting other political prisoners out of jail, like human rights activist and lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni.



During his incarceration, Kilo became a symbol for all imprisoned intellectuals in Syria.



Although international human rights groups and heads of states called for his early release, their pleas were in vain.



Kilo was arrested in May 2006 along with nine other activists for putting his name to the Damascus-Beirut Declaration – a manifesto calling for Lebanese-Syrian relations to be based on “independence and sovereignty” which was signed by hundreds of intellectuals from both countries.



But many believe that he was imprisoned mainly for publishing a controversial article on sectarianism, in which he considered the effect that this has on “the collective conscience of the Syrians”.



Despite his active role in the Syrian opposition, Kilo, whose discourse focused on reform rather than on radical change, was considered to be less confrontational than other dissidents.



Therefore, his arrest was taken as a warning to the whole Syrian opposition that nobody was safe, say observers.



Shortly after his detention, Kilo wrote from behind bars that he had been targeted out of “revenge” for his “rational” political views.



He hinted at his potentially broad political appeal when he said that these views laid the foundations for “the revival of the nation without endangering Syria’s unity”.



“As a Latakian Christian, who [comes] from the secular left, Kilo is particularly well placed to pressure the Assad regime where it hurts,” wrote Joshua Landis, an American scholar and Syria expert.



“He speaks its language of Arabism and socialism and appeals to the same Syrians who are considered most likely to be regime supporters,” added Landis in an article posted on his website, Syriacomment.com, on May 2007 after Kilo was sentenced.



Kilo was born in the northern coastal city of Latakia in 1940.



He studied journalism first in Cairo, then in Germany, and later translated prominent books on politics and economy from German to Arabic.



In the early 1980s, Kilo was imprisoned for two years for promoting opinions that angered the Syrian regime.



At the time, some observers said that the activist was incarcerated for his affiliations with the communist party, but he denied this, stressing his independence as a thinker.



Others believe that he was just another victim of the government’s crackdown on activists in general.



Following his first prison term, Kilo moved to France for a couple of years before returning to Syria in 1991.



For many years, he was a columnist, writing opinion pieces in Arab newspapers, such as the Lebanese daily Annahar and the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi.



He became involved with political activism mainly following the death of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in 2000.



Kilo was a pillar of the so-called Damascus Spring movement which called for peaceful democratic change in the country. Together with other intellectuals, he pressed the authorities to release political prisoners and put an end to emergency laws effective since the Ba’ath party took power in 1963.



During the short period of political thaw, which began after the death of Assad senior and lasted for about a year, he founded with others a series of committees to help reactivate Syrian civil society groups advocating greater freedom.



In 2005, he became the head of the local Centre for Defending Freedom Expression and Opinion.



That year, he was also one of the main dissidents behind the establishment of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change, an umbrella group of secular, Islamist and Kurdish activists.



Twelve of the leaders of this group are currently serving jail sentences on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country”.



Mohammad al-Abdullah, a former political prisoner who spent six months in the Adra jail with him in Damascus, said that he discovered the “humane” face of Kilo, who showed a lot of respect towards everybody, including criminal prisoners sentenced for rape or prostitution.



“I learned from him how to invest my time in prison by reading,” he said. “He used to tell me while laughing: finally, I have time for reading.”