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Syria Activist Fears Family Targeted

Exiled opposition figure based in Washington tells of harassment and arrest of relatives back home.
By Radwan Ziadeh
  • Syrian protesters in Baniyas in May. (Photo: Syrian Freedom/Flickr)
    Syrian protesters in Baniyas in May. (Photo: Syrian Freedom/Flickr)

As a result of my opposition activities, I have repeatedly been threatened and subject to smear campaigns in Syria. Now the regime’s threats have been confirmed with the arrest of my older brother, Yassine.

He is a 37-year-old businessman from the Daraya area of Damascus, with two young daughters. Unlike me, he has never previously been involved in dissident activities, nor in human rights or with political groups in Syria.

For the first time in his life, he was participating in a demonstration in Damascus on August 30 when security forces started attacking protesters. Yassine went into the nearby apartment of a friend to try to get out of the firing line, and three security personnel from the air force division were inside waiting for him.

No one has seen him since, but we believe he is being held in a prison in the suburb of Mezze. Naturally, we fear that he is being subjected to the same ill-treatment and torture methods that have become a routine part of the regime’s intensifying crackdown.

I have had no direct contact from the Syrian authorities regarding his arrest, and of course I suspect that he has been arrested purely because of his connection to me – this is typical of the way they operate.

The Assad regime has a long history of targeting the families of opposition activists as a way of pressuring them to stop their activities, and this tactic has become even more crucial since the start of the uprising.

I have been involved in human rights monitoring and reform campaigns in Syria since the death of Hafez Assad in 2000. My activities in Syria culminated with founding the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, and publication of a book on Syrian civil society. Both were outlawed by the regime. I received a number of warnings from the authorities, before I was finally called in to see the security forces 2007.

“This is the last time you will be visiting us as a guest,” the head of intelligence told me. It was after this that I knew I had to leave the country.

I fled to the United States, but in 2008 the Syrian government issued an arrest warrant for me. My family, who are all in Syria, immediately became the targets of regime hostility, and my mother, brothers and sisters were all banned from leaving the country – a ban which still stands today.

Only one of my sisters has been able to get out, and she is the only member of my family I have seen since I left. Not only has the regime separated me from my entire family, it has also divided them from one another.

While one of my sisters is stuck in Damascus, her husband is in Saudi Arabia, and they haven’t seen each other for three years. He hasn’t even met one of his children.

Ever since the uprising started in Syria, I have become increasingly concerned about their safety, especially that of my mother. They have all had to go into hiding, sleeping in different apartments every night and the only way I have of keeping track of them is through occasional Skype contact. But even this is dangerous.

The revolving door policy of indiscriminate arrests and intimidation is spreading as the regime is becoming more desperate to contain the uprising. There are a number of instances of family members being arrested and tortured in order to blackmail opposition activists, especially in places like Hama, where we believe children as young as a year old have been held hostage by security forces.

But I don’t think there is any way this strategy can work – torture leaves no room for compromise and every day we are looking for more ways to increase international and domestic pressure to topple the regime.

The Syrian people are being forced to pay a higher and higher price for their freedom, and so their struggle is worth more than ever before.

Radwan Ziadeh is head of the Damascus Centre of Human Rights, a visiting scholar at George Washington university, and a veteran Syrian opposition figure.

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