Paying a High Price for Freedom

Syrian human rights lawyer offers a tribute to a political dissident who never lost hope, despite years of suffering.

Paying a High Price for Freedom

Syrian human rights lawyer offers a tribute to a political dissident who never lost hope, despite years of suffering.

Thursday, 2 April, 2009
I still remember how I felt that afternoon of February 1, 2004 when I was on my way to visit Fares Murad who had just been released from prison the day before.

I was confused: how should I behave, what should I say to him? Should I congratulate him for his belated freedom? Be sorry for 29 lost years in prison? Or just keep silent?

It wasn’t difficult to recognise him among the crowd of men who had gathered in his family house in Damascus. Fares was talking about the friends he left behind in prison while at the same time receiving phone calls from journalists, telling them that he asked for all political prisoners in the country to be released.

He seemed strong but almost too calm – as if he had just come back from shopping, not from a long-term imprisonment: sixteen years in the notorious Tadmour prison; three months in the military prison Al-Mazza; seven years in Adra prison; and about six years in the Sydnaia military prison. Twenty-nine years in total – that is more than half of his life, since he was arrested when he was only 25.

Later he told me that he was afraid of the moment of freedom. Afraid of not being able to catch up with life and with the people who went on with their lives for almost 30 years while he was left behind.

We make many sacrifices for freedom. We pay a high price for it – and yet we are afraid of it the moment it comes because we’re not sure what it will bring.

Fares was born in Aleppo in 1950 to Palestinian parents. He got involved in politics early, during his high school years, and never got a chance to study his dream, film directing.

On June 21, 1975, he was arrested along with other 13 members of the leftist revolutionary Arabic Communist Organisation, ACO. A day that later was marked by the democratic Syrian opposition as the “Day of the Syrian Political Prisoner”, commemorated every year.

Fares, only 25 years old, was put on trial, and sentenced to life for his ties to the ACO. Twenty-nine years later, on January 31, 2004, he was released, with others, after a presidential amnesty.

I had known Fares for a while before his release. As a human rights lawyer who works essentially on the issues of political prisoners, I couldn’t avoid the emotional involvement with victims of rights violations or their families.

Soon I wanted to know more about them than just the mere facts necessary for the legal case. I started to look for small details, which turn the detainee from just a name or a number on the prisoners list into a human being who has dreams, characteristics and identity.

I soon became very close friends with Fares, one of many dozens of political prisoners I met. We had many things in common, we both love freedom, smoking, and cats!

Of course, we also had some differences. He was very calm, I am very nervous. He was joyful, I am bad-tempered. He never complained, I never stop complaining. I was always pessimistic, and he never lost hope.

After his release, he never missed a single demonstration, a visit to families of other prisoners, a political trial. He never failed to console others and to support them as much as he could. He did all that even though he was released from prison as a very ill man who suffered from a serious spinal injury that hampered his breathing and made it difficult for him to walk.

In prison, he did not get any medical treatment. Due to his injury, he was unable to work when he was finally set free. His illness and his poverty took away another chance in life: He never got married. Instead, his brothers and sister, his nephews and two cats, Lolo and Attos, became his surrogate family.

Juts like thousands of political prisoners, he was deprived of his civil rights and banned from leaving the country. His spinal injury would have required surgery that according to some doctors he consulted can only be done in few western countries, but not in Syria. But even in the light of this urgent medical need, security did not grant him permission to travel.

His health started to deteriorate gradually. So we started to meet him at his home, with some close friends. We ate what he cooked, especially delicious okra and beans. He was very good cook, one of the skills he acquired in prison.

Prison – a simple word that hides an ugly world of injustice and suffering. Literally, I asked him a hundred times about his life in prison. I wanted to defeat that prison with him by living through the smallest details with him.

I believe that everyone should stand up for their convictions. But I never understood how a person could lose almost his or her entire life and still believe in that life at the same time.

I asked Fares once how he coped with his loss. He told me that he had lost nothing. “I gave part of my life to what I believe – my life was not wasted,” he said. In all the years I knew him, I never heard him speak in anger or hate.

This is just one story about one person among many who experienced that kind of life. Syria, which has been ruled under emergency state since 1963, has produced, and is still producing, thousands of political prisoners. Each of them has different story that deserves to be told.

Over the past months, Fares’ health got worse and worse. His bent back put increasing pressure on his lungs, and no medical treatment was available in Syria. Two days before his death, I noticed that he could barely breath. I begged him to talk again to security to get a passport but he told me there was no hope. "I will never beg for it," he said.

Fares died on March 9 after his heart and breathing stopped, according to the hospital.

It is very painful to lose a dear friend and great person. But what hurts even more is to feel how powerless we are, as defenders of human rights, as people who try to make a change, while we can't even help improve the life of one person who suffered so much. We had to watch him suffer, and there was so little we could do.

But, after all, we are indebted to Fares and all the others, at least, not to lose hope because he, in spite of all his suffering, never did.

Razan Zaitouneh is a human rights lawyer based in Damascus.
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