13 May 2007

 

 

 

 

Despite early hope: like father, like son

By Mona Eltahawy

 

  

The first time I met Anwar al-Bunni, in June 2005, one of Syria's numerous state-owned newspapers had just called him a traitor. Over tea that he made himself and countless cigarettes that he smoked as furiously as he defended human rights, Bunni explained that his presence across the desk from me in the office from which he defended countless Syrians who dared stand up to their regime was proof that Syria had changed. His own family had paid a dear price for opposition - two brothers had spent a total of almost 30 years in prison between them.

 

That newspaper, sold in a newsstand right under Bunni's office, called him a traitor on its front page because he had urged the European Union not to sign a trade agreement with Syria until it received guarantees from the Syrian government that it would respect human rights.

 

In the old Syria (read: that of Hafez Assad), he told me, he would have been bundled into a car in broad daylight to a jail cell somewhere. But Syria was changing, Bunni said. It had opened up to the world through the Internet, it had a younger president in the form of Assad's son, Bashar, and Bunni said that his appearances on pan-Arab satellite television channels effectively provided him with cover to speak out.

 

Less than a year after I met him, Bunni was bundled into a car in broad daylight and thrown into a jail cell after he signed a petition calling for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations. After almost a year in jail, he was finally put on trial on charges of spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale, affiliating with an unlicensed political association having an international nature, discrediting state institutions and contacting a foreign country. In April, he was sentenced to five years in jail. So much for the new Syria.

 

Last Monday, a judge adjourned until May 13 the trial of two other Syrians arrested after they signed that same petition that landed Bunni in trouble. Writer Michel Kilo and human rights activist Mahmoud Issa were arrested separately last year and charged with weakening national feeling, fomenting sectarian rifts, and spreading false information. If convicted, each faces up to three years in prison.

 

That same June in 2005 when I first met Bunni in Damascus, Kilo told me in an interview that he too believed Bashar Assad's Syria was a different country than the one his father ruled over. He explained how the atmosphere of intimidation under Assad the father was such that when he jailed Kilo for three years for anti-regime views, just two of the hundreds of people Kilo knew plucked up the courage to visit his wife and children to see how they were doing. Many others were simply too scared to be seen visiting the home of a political prisoner.

 

"Now, if a watermelon vendor is jailed in Syria, thousands of us would be shouting for his freedom," Kilo told me. All in all, 10 Syrians were arrested for signing that petition on Syrian-Lebanese relations.

 

And on Thursday, dissident Kamal Labwani was sentenced to life in prison for contacting a foreign nation for the purpose of instigating attacks against Syria. His sentence was later reduced to 12 years in prison. He was arrested in November 2005 after returning from a trip to the United States where he met with senior officials to discuss human rights in his country.

 

Far from being a new kind of leader, Assad has resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the dictator's book of how to run a country: When under international pressure, squeeze your opponents at home because your international critics are too big to take on. The day that Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison was also the day that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Damascus to discuss the international organization's investigation into former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination.

 

During that June 2005 Damascus visit, I dearly wished I could interview Aref Dalila, an outspoken economist whose brilliant mind and passionate denouncements of state corruption were one of the highlights of my first trip to his country in 1999. That initial visit was during Hafez Assad's twilight. When Assad the son took over, Dalila's criticisms became especially stinging because he too belongs to the Alawite minority sect to which the president belongs. Dalila was jailed during the unraveling of what had become known as the "Damascus spring," when reformers and activists emboldened by the promise of Bashar Assad's new Syria signed a petition calling for political change.

 

There it was again - the crime of acting on the belief that Syria was changing.

 

Bashar Assad does not preside over a new Syria. Instead, as the travails of Bunni, Kilo, Labwani, Dalila and their fellow political prisoners show, his Syria has about it the stench of totalitarianism so poignantly depicted in the recent German Oscar-winning film "The Lives of Others." That film's heartrending portrayal of the intimidation the Stasi visited upon East Germany and the courage - and price exacted - of those who stood up to it is alive and all too apparent in Syria today.

 

 

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian commentator based in New York.

Her Web site is www.monaeltahawy.com.

She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

 

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