Last month, the United States renewed economic and diplomatic sanctions against Damascus, claiming that Syria continues to support terrorists and pursue weapons of mass destruction. In the West, Syria is largely talked about in terms of its strategic importance or strained relations with the US, and what is often forgotten is the state’s repression of its own people. The press is muzzled and opponents of the regime are swiftly silenced. Political activists, human rights defenders and government critics face constant harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention. Every year scores of teachers and students are expelled from universities, or arrested, for the peaceful practice of their right to freedom of expression.
The latest victim to fall foul of Syria’s repressive laws is Raghdah Sa’id Hassan, a 38-year-old writer who was arrested on 10 February for trying to publish a novel that describes political conditions in Syria during the 1990s. She has been held incommunicado since her arrest. Like many other prisoners of conscience detained in Syria, the young writer is at particular risk of ill-treatment, including torture.
Hassan was arrested on the Syrian side of the al-Arida border with Lebanon, where she was travelling by car. It is believed that she is now being held at the Political Security branch in Tartus, a city on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Three days after her arrest, Hassan’s flat was ransacked, apparently by the security forces, since there were no signs of a break-in. A paper printout of Hassan’s unpublished novel, The New Prophets (a love story involving two Syrian prisoners), was confiscated, together with some publications by various Syrian opposition political parties.
The Syrian authorities have not revealed the reasons behind Hassan’s arrest or announced any charges against her. But both PEN and Amnesty believe that her arrest is linked to her intention to publish her novel and to suspicions that she is active in an opposition party.
The strict control of freedom of expression and association in Syria is aided by its ‘state of emergency’ laws, which have been in force since 1963. Only the Ba’ath and connected parties are officially recognised in Syria and human rights organisations are unable to operate freely. Despite high hopes, freedom of expression has not improved under the decade-long presidency of Dr Bashar al-Assad. For example, Muhannad al-Hassani, a lawyer who has challenged the oppressive legal framework imposed by the Syrian government, was arrested on 28 July 2009 and charged with ‘weakening national sentiments’ and ‘spreading false news’. He is President of the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, which has been denied official registration for the past six years, and was recently announced as this year’s recipient of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. In March 2009, Habib Saleh, a pro-reform activist, was sentenced to three years in prison by the Damascus Criminal Court under similar charges, for critical articles he had published on the Internet. Four years ago, I wrote in these pages about the case of Dr Aref Dalila, arrested for a lecture in which he called for democracy and transparency, alleging official 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’.
Raghdah Hassan has been detained once before. For two-and-a-half years, between 1992 and 1995, she was imprisoned without trial or charge for her alleged membership of the Communist Action Party (CAP). The CAP is an unauthorised opposition party that was founded in August 1976 and engages in non-violent political activities in Syria. Since its foundation, the party has faced periodic repression and hundreds of its members have been arrested. The 1990s saw a crackdown on the party and many CAP members, like Hassan, were sentenced to terms of imprisonment. Hassan was acquitted in 1995, and her detention inspired her to write The New Prophets.
Hassan worked as a teacher in a public kindergarten in Tartus until 2008, when she went on unpaid sabbatical leave. She subsequently rented and ran a second-hand clothes shop until the end of 2009. During the last three months of 2009, she was repeatedly questioned by Political Security. She was summoned to their branch in Tartus twice and they also visited her in her flat and in her clothes shop. They demanded she sign a statement that she would not publish her novel, but she refused to do so.
Hassan suffers from recurrent attacks of a renal colic resulting from kidney stones. The condition causes her great pain and she requires a daily intake of specific antibiotics together with strong painkillers. There are concerns that she will be denied these necessary medicines and that her health will deteriorate under detention.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing serious concern about the incommunicado detention of Raghdah Sa’id Hassan, and seeking information on the reasons for her arrest and the charges against her; expressing concern that she is being held in violation of her right to free expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and seeking assurances that she is not being tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention.
Appeals should be addressed to:
His Excellency Dr Sami Khiyami
8 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PH
Fax: 020 7235 4621
Online form: http://www.syremb.com/
Update: On 3 May 2010 Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Sittampalam (J S) Tissainayagam received a presidential pardon. The international campaign was certainly instrumental in his release so thank you to all readers who sent appeals.