Syria is in the news again. But Syria is largely talked about in terms of its strategic importance or its strained relations with the United States, and what is forgotten is that President Bashar al-Assad’s domestic policy has proved as repressive as his father’s. Measures are in place to muzzle the press and silence opponents of the regime, and every year scores of teachers and students are arbitrarily expelled from their universities, or arrested, for practising their right to freedom of expression.
One victim of this hardline approach in academic institutions is Dr Aref Dalila. The professor was arrested on 9 September 2001 for a lecture in which he called for democracy and transparency. His address, entitled ‘The Syrian Economy: Problems and Solutions’, focused on the deterioration of his country’s economy and alleged corruption among economic policy advisers. Dalila was subsequently charged with trying to change the Constitution by force, through the weakening of national sentiment, by distributing false news and causing racial and sectarian tensions. During his interrogation he was reportedly beaten.
Born in Latakia in 1942, Dalila graduated in Economics from Damascus University in 1965. He then pursued advanced studies in the Soviet Union, where he received his doctorate in Economic Science. A contributor to the banned weekly Al-Doumari and former Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Economics at Damascus University, Dalila has written and translated many books on economics, politics and social history, and taught in Syrian and other Arabic universities.
Human rights organisations believe that the main reason for Dalila’s detention is his role in the civil society movement that arose out of the ‘Damascus Spring’, a short period during which pro-democracy and human rights activists were allowed a greater degree of freedom. The ‘Spring’ followed the death of President Hafiz al-Assad and the ascension to power of his son Dr Bashar al-Assad in July 2000.
Following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, France administered Syria until its independence in 1946. The country experienced a series of military coups until November 1970, when Hafiz al-Assad, then Minister of Defence and a member of the Socialist Ba’ath Party, seized power. Although Assad repaired Syria’s relations with her neighbours and quickly established a period of stability, he led one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. In the wake of his death, Assad’s son, a former eye doctor who trained in London, appeared keen for Syria to modernise and started implementing the first tentative steps towards economic and social reform. In his inauguration speech the new President indicated his desire for increased toleration for free speech. His press reforms allowed a resurgence of independent newspapers and there briefly flowered a greater openness to public debate and political change.
Against this background, intellectuals and the opposition started a peaceful movement calling for democracy and greater freedom in Syria. This led to the establishment of a number of forums, where public affairs, political reforms and cultural issues could be discussed, and in January 2001 parliamentarian Riad al-Seif announced his plans to launch an independent political party.
However, this wave of optimism was short-lived and it was not long before the authorities started to clamp down on Syria’s new-found freedoms. A few groups, like that led by Seif, continued their activities in spite of the restrictions. This defiance is believed to have triggered the wave of arrests, in August and September 2001, resulting in the imprisonment of various reform activists including Seif and Dalila.
Seif was arrested on 6 September 2001, the day after he had hosted a political seminar at his house. He was later sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on various charges, including ‘attempting to change the Constitution by illegal means’ and ‘inciting sectarian strife’. Dalila was also said to have taken part in the meeting held in Seif’s house on 5 September. He was arrested with nine other civil society activists, most of whom have since been released.
Dalila’s trial took place in the Supreme State Security Court and on 31 July 2002 he was sentenced to ten years of hard labour. The court’s procedures do not meet international fair-trial standards, and no appeals can be made against its judgments. The professor, who suffers severe ill health, has spent the past few years in solitary confinement in the political section of the Adra prison in Damascus, where conditions are said to be extremely harsh.
Dalila is reported to be suffering from both diabetes and heart disease, exacerbated by his poor treatment in prison. According to Amnesty, in April 2002 he was taken to hospital suffering from deep vein thrombosis. Although he was in urgent need of medical care and medication he received neither and was returned to prison. There were further concerns for his health during the latter part of 2004 when he was suffering from high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. Dalila started a hunger strike on 12 July 2005 in protest at his solitary confinement and ill-treatment. He recently underwent a heart operation and apparently needs further surgery.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Dr Aref Dalila in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a signatory, to:
His Excellency President Bashar al-Assad
President of the Republic
c/o The Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic
8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH
Fax: 020 7235 4621