Syria Continues to Isolate People, Exert State Control

Syria Continues to Isolate People, Exert State Control

Friday, 4 September, 2009

Syria apparently wants to emerge from years of isolation and build good relations with the international community, which is a must in a world moving more and more towards globalisation.

But while the country is supposedly opening up to western nations at an official level, the state continues to isolate its people, especially political activists and human rights advocates.

An August 22 editorial in the state-run daily Tishreen warned Syrian organisations and activists against using human rights issues as a cover to make connections with foreign parties against Syria’s interests.

The editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Samira al-Masalma went as far as describing human rights activists who seek financial contributions from outside the country or violate national values as committing “legal and moral” crimes.

To discredit the struggle of Syrian activists, the regime has systematically gone about linking any dissident with foreign parties - whether western civil society groups or governments - and accusing them of receiving funds from abroad.

It constantly tries to demonise activists as potential enemies capable of conspiring with foreign forces against their country, which is a particularly potent strategy in a country where officials and the media constantly depict foreign threats coming from the west and Israel as the most serious threat to Syria.

This accusation is commonly used by security officials not only because it helps them to create an alibi for arbitrary detention but also because it makes it easier to damage the reputation of activists and organisations in the eyes of society.

In Syria, the idea of national pride is drummed into people. It requires that every good “nationalist” Syrian rejects foreign meddling in the internal affairs of his country.

Children at a very young age are raised to become hostile to the west and imbibe the idea that the United States and Europe are suspicious forces that are interfering in the region to protect the interests of Israel.

Security services often summon activists suspected of having connections with western diplomats in Damascus, meeting foreign journalists, having contacts with international organisations or attending conferences in the west.

The last part is less of a concern for the authorities since for the past two years most activists have been prevented from travelling outside the country.

Not all forms of foreign contact are equally frowned upon. It is more acceptable to have relations with European rather than US groups or with western civil society groups rather than governments.

The recent history of civil society in Syria starts in 2000 following the death of former president Hafez al-Assad.

Damascus witnessed the emergence of civil movements and the start of the establishment of human rights groups. But this brief phase - known as the “Damascus Spring”- was quickly crushed by the authorities.

Syria follows emergency laws and martial orders imposed when the Baath party took power in 1963.

Some of the groups were infiltrated by government agents or subjected to the control of the authorities. Others were allowed to remain active but under heavy restrictions.

Many of these groups had no experience or expertise. They had inherited a long past of fear, were suspicious of everything and were not used to democratic ways of thinking and acting.

They believed that with determination and principles they could create a democratic movement locally without outside help.

But in reality, they needed training and funds from the west to develop their capabilities and make their cause heard by international bodies and the media.

The authorities made sure to increase their isolation from similar groups abroad.

With a series of arrests of prominent activists, they sent a clear message not to establish contact with foreign groups but also to western nations to steer away from Syrian civil society.

In 2005, political activist Kamal al-Labwani was arrested on his arrival at Damascus airport after returning from a months-long trip to Europe and the US where he met human rights organisations and government officials and peacefully called for democratic reform in Syria.

He was sentenced to 12 years in jail for “communicating with a foreign country and inciting it to initiate aggression against Syria”.

Three more years of imprisonment were added to his sentence recently in what many critics said was further punishment for his attempts to get the international community to press for democratic reforms in Syria and pay more attention to the human rights situation there.

A few months later, in May 2006, prominent activist Anwar al-Bunni was arrested for signing the "Damascus-Beirut Declaration”, a statement by Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals calling for independent relations between the two countries.

Bunni was accused of spreading false news and sentenced to five years in prison.

Many thought that one of the most important factors behind this tough sentence was the human rights training centre opened that same year by Bunni as part of a European initiative to support human rights and democracy in Syria.

The centre was closed by the security apparatus only days after opening. Bunni was also fined to around 2,000 US dollars because the premises were not licensed by the ministry of labour and social affairs.

Against all laws or logic, officials from that ministry further called for Bunni to lose his Syrian citizenship.

The European reaction to Bunni’s arrest was a source of disappointment to many activists who called it soft and began to rethink the value of having relations with the west.

The European Union contented itself with issuing few statements of concern for his arbitrary detention.

Only a few weeks ago, lawyer Muhannad Al-Hassani, the head of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights and one of the most professional remaining activists, was arrested.

The main reason behind his imprisonment is his monitoring of the trials of the state security court. He could face a sentence of up to 15 years in jail.

It is time to assert that it is not acceptable any more to accuse activists of lacking national feelings when they seek help and support from the international community.

To adhere to the values of one’s own country does not prevent one from abiding by universal human principles. The security of a nation against “foreign threats” can only be achieved when the security of each individual as a free thinking and acting citizen is guaranteed.

The real "enemies" of any society are not activists with connections to foreign parties but those who try to isolate people and push them to replace their feeling of belonging to a nation with one of identification with their sectarian or ethnic groups.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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