Siobhan Dowd

Marwan Osman

A NEW ERA dawned in Syria in July 2000, when the long-standing president, Hafez al- Assad, passed on the mantle of government to his son, Bashar. Cynics hardly raised an eyebrow. They expected business as usual: a Syrian society kept oppressed, as it had been for years, and characterised by human rights violations, no freedom of expression, and the detention, in their thousands, of political opponents. Optimists, however, celebrated the new president’s inauguration and called it the ‘Damascus Spring’. A new climate of openness began to take hold, forums for the discussion of Syria’s future were formed, outspoken human rights advocates emerged. For a brief moment, hope seemed justified. Then, in February 2001, Bashar’s government imposed a set of heavy restrictions on free speech. This move was followed by a wave of detentions. Amnesty International released a report, ‘Smothering Freedom of Expression: the Detention of Peacehl Critics’, in which it noted that the authorities ‘might be trying to turn back the clock’ by imprisoning the new activists. The cynics, it seemed, were right. Bashar al-Assad’s Syria did not look very different from that of his father.

Marwan Osman, a Kurdish writer and activist, is one casualty of the Damascus Spring’s demise. A member of Kurdish PEN, a playwright, and a leading member of the Kurdish Democratic Alliance, Osman was arrested in December 2002, a few days after attending a public demonstration calling for the Kurds of Syria to be accorded their full rights. He is now incarcerated a few miles north of Damascus, awaiting trial before a state security court. He is accused of ‘inciting sectarian strife’, and, if convicted, could face several years in prison.

Born to Kurdish parents in 1959 in Amouda in the province of El-Hasaka, Marwan Osman did well at school and was admitted to the law faculty of Damascus University. He studied there for three years until 1983, when he re~ortedlvh ad to dscontinue hls course because he had displeased the security services. Perhaps his student political activities had made hlrn an ‘undesirable element’. The Arab Organisation for the Defence of Freedom of Expression andof the Press notes that by the age of twentyseven he had been officially banned from leaving the country, an order which was apparently in effect until the year 2000. Despite being persona non grata, Osman developed as a writer. He was editor of two Kurdishlanguage reviews (Dialogue and The Question), wrote numerous articles in both Arab and Kurdish magazines, and penned several plays in Kurdish, rejoicing in such titles as The Champion of the Mountain and Bobwhite5 Blood and the Cavalrymen of Mirage. His literary work became well known throughout the scattered international Kurdish community. He also wrote poems, often reflecting elliptically on the atmosphere of repression in which he lived:

What’s wrong with you, my heart? You ride against my head, You show up at the funerals of surveillance. . . O n the bright days you get tied up in meetings, when the cosmos smiles, you slink up the backs of the grass blades.. . You just don’t burn.. .

Meanwhile, the Kurds of Syria were not faring well. A census in the 1960s had left them off the voting register, and effectively turned them into ‘foreigners’ with few civil rights. (Although they now make up about 12 per cent of the population, they still have no representation in government.) Kurdish cultural activities of all kinds – including the publication of Kurdish-language books and the circulation of Kurdish music – were frowned upon, and many Syrian Kurds found themselves arbitrarily detained under the rule of Hafez al-Assad.

Marwan Osman had long wanted his people to have equality with Arabs before the law. He and his friend Hassan Saleh led the small Yeluti Kurdish Paroj, an opposition group, and actively promoted the calls of the wider umbrella organisation, the Kurdish Democratic Alliance, for full citizenship rights for Syrian Kurds. On 10 December 2002, Osman and Saleh CO-organised a 150- strong protest in front of the National Assembly in Damascus. The two men were among those who presented a memorandum to the Assembly — which was-formally accepted – demanding better protection for Kurdish rights. They then found themselves invited to meet with the Minister of the Interior, Major General Ah Harnrnud, on 15 December. Eagerly, they appeared for the meeting, but instead of being granted an audence, they were arrested.

Their lawyer, who has had trouble gaining access to his clients, reported in May 2003 that they were to face the grave charge of secessionism, and that, if convicted, they would have no right of appeal. The trial has yet to take lace. Meanwhde. news on Osman’s current state of health is scanty. Syria’s poor record on prison conditions and the continuing reports of the torture of those in detention have understandably alarmed Osman’s friends and colleagues. They, along with many international human rights groups, are actively campaigning for his release. Amnesty International has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience and International PEN highhghted hs case for its 15 November Annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Letters politely requesting that Manvan Osman be released and that the case against him be dropped can be sent to:

His Excellency President Bashar al-Assad

Presidential Palace

Damascus

Syrian Arab Republic

Fax: + 963 11 332 3410

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