The detention of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, remains widespread in Syria. After arrest, many face unfair trials or are held incommunicado, without charge or hearing, in places where they may be subject to torture or ill-treatment. Syria has not ratified the Convention against Torture.
Two released prisoners of conscience, Nizar Nayyuf and Faraj Bayrakdar, have described to me some of the methods used in pre-trial detention by Syrian military intelligence. These can involve being beaten with steel cables which have been soaked in water (which increases the pain), having electric shocks administered to sensitive parts of the body, and the ‘German Chair’ – a particularly cruel method of torture, often with long-term effects, invented by the Nazis during the Second World War and developed by the Iraqi and Syrian military intelligence agencies. It involves a stretching of the spine, resulting in temporary paralysis. Nayyuf was so badly tortured that, when he was finally released from prison, he could not walk without the aid of crutches.
Syria gained independence from the French Mandate in 1943, and in 1963 the Ba’ath, a revolutionary party whose ethos was based on Arab nationalism and socialism, seized power. In 1966 a radical wing of the party seized control, expelling the original founders, who eventually established themselves in Iraq. In November 1970 the radicals were ousted by Hafez al-Assad, then Minister of Defence, at the head of more moderate section of the Ba’ath. In 1972 he introduced a constitution under which elections had to be held both for a national assembly and for the presidency. Hafez al-Assad was then voted in as President, and ruled the country until his death on 10 June 2000.
His son, a former eye doctor who trained in London, Dr Bashar al-Assad, was inaugurated as President on 17 July 2000. Since his succession, Bashar has reiterated his desire for Syrian modernisation. He has already implemented the first tentative measures towards economic and social reform, but progress is slow. There continue to be restraints on freedom of expression and association, and the independence of the press remains limited. Although Bashar has released hundreds of political prisoners, his reform process appears to have stalled: arbitrary arrests continue, and many prisoners of conscience remain incarcerated under lengthy prison sentences.
Dr Abdul Aziz al-Khayer, aged fifty-three, is a medical doctor and dissident writer. He was arrested in Damascus on 1 February 1992 and sentenced to twentv-two years’ imprisonment for his membership of the Hizb al-‘Arnal al-Shuyu’i (Party for Communist Action – PCA). The PCA is not known to have used or advocated violence. He is due for release on 31 January 2014.
Faraj Bayrakdar, a poet, journalist and honorary member of the English branch of PEN (the international association of writers), and three others were tried at the same time as Dr al-Khayer, but were released in December 2001 under a presidential amnesty. It is not known why Dr al-ghaye; was not included in the amnesty.
Bavrakdar shared a prison cell with Dr al-Khayer and when we last met in August he spoke movingly about the continued imprisonment of his colleague and friend. Bavrakdar informed me that international human rights organisations were slow to take up Dr al-Khayer as a prisoner of conscience because he had often used a pseudonym when writing articles that were critical of the regime, so it was initially not clear to the outside world that he was the actual author of the pieces. Bavrakdar worked with h on a number of articles for two left-wing publications and told me that his work includes many political essays, including ‘Nuptials of Dictatorship’, and a publication called The Black Book, which accused al-Assad’s regime of corruption.
Bayrakdar also spoke to me about how Dr al-Khayer uses his medical training to help other prisoners, treating them whenever possible, and how he has become renowned as an informal prison doctor. In spite of his ‘usefulness’ to the prison authorities, Dr al-Khayer has reportedly been denied family visits for over a year.
As well as PEN, Amnesty International (AI) has taken up his case. According to their reports, Dr al-Khayer was sought by the authorities for many years prior to his arrest. Members of his family were detained for various periods to exert pressure on him, and his wife was imprisoned without charge or trial from August 1987 until December 1991.
Following their arrest, Dr al-Khayer and his colleagues were held incommunicado for nearly three months and were reportedly interrogated under torture. On 14 April 1992 Dr al-Khayer was transferred to Sednaya prison on the outskirts of Damascus, where he is still held. He was not tried or sentenced until August 1995, and was given no right to appeal. AI believes Dr al-Khayer’s trial, before the State security Supreme Court, did not meet the requirements for a fair trial as specified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a state party. Both PEN and AI consider Dr al-Khayer to have been detained and convicted for his writing, conscientiously held beliefs, and political affiliation.
The relationship between Britain and Syria has developed steadily since the restoration of diplomatic ties in November 1990. Tony Blair visited Syria in October 2001, and President Bashar al-Assad and his British-born wife, Asma, visited the UK as guests of the Government in December 2002 and had an audience with the Queen. Syria is also keen to pursue closer relations with the EU. Readers can send appeals calling for the release of Dr Abdul Aziz al-Khayer to:
His Excellency Bashar al-Assad
Abu Rummaneh, Al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: 00 963 11 332 3410