Tal al-Mallouhi, a young Syrian poet and student, was sentenced in a closed court on 14 February 2011 to five years in prison. She was charged with ‘divulging information to a foreign state’. No evidence of her guilt was ever provided and PEN believes that Mallouhi was sentenced for her online writings and poems about local and Palestinian political affairs.
The tragic deaths of veteran Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik in Syria made headlines around the world, but the fate of Mallouhi and other prisoners of conscience is little known outside the country. Bashar al-Assad has shown scant regard for the lives and safety of critical journalists since he came to power. His repressive policies have long been known by human-rights organisations who have continuously lobbied for the release of those detained in violation of their right to freedom of expression.
President Hafez al-Assad was succeeded by his son in July 2000. There were high hopes that Bashar, a former ophthalmologist who trained in London, would be a liberalising influence. He appeared keen to modernise Syria and in his inauguration speech indicated his desire for increased toleration for free speech; soon afterwards he implemented the first tentative steps towards economic and social change. His press reforms caused a resurgence of independent newspapers and a greater openness to public debate, and political change began to emerge. Intellectuals and the general opposition started a peaceful movement calling for democracy and greater freedom in Syria. In turn, this led to the establishment of a number of forums where public affairs, political reforms and cultural issues could be discussed.
This period, known as the ‘Damascus Spring’, was short-lived and before long the authorities started to clamp down on Syrians’ new-found freedoms with a vengeance. The press has been effectively muzzled and opponents of the regime swiftly silenced. Political activists, human-rights defenders, bloggers and government critics have faced constant harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention.
According to PEN, on 27 December 2009 Mallouhi, then eighteen years old and still at secondary school, was arrested in her home city of Homs after being summoned for questioning about her blog entries. Following her arrest, state security officers raided her family’s home and confiscated her computer, notebooks and other personal documents. Mallouhi was held at a secret location without being charged or allowed access to her family for the first nine months of her detention.
Initially, Mallouhi’s family sought her release through diplomatic negotiations and did not want any publicity for the case. However, on 2 September 2010, her mother published an open letter to President Assad seeking information about her daughter’s welfare and calling for her release. It was only on 30 September 2010 that her family was allowed to see her at Doma prison in Damascus. On 5 October 2010 it was reported that Mallouhi had been charged with spying for a foreign country. Mallouhi has no known political affiliations, and sources close to the family remain shocked by the charges. According to al Jazeera, she is the youngest known convicted prisoner of conscience.
As the crisis in Syria deepens, English PEN is attempting to raise the profile of writers such as Mallouhi who are languishing in Syria’s prisons. In a campaign to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, PEN published her poem ‘You Will Remain an Example’ online and are trying to circulate it as widely as possible.
You Will Remain an Example
I will walk with all walking people
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
A palm tree
A drop in a cloud
And a grave to protect me
This is more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise me
I would like to have power
Even for one day
To build the ‘republic of feelings.’
(Translated by Ghias al-Jundi)
Given the current situation in Syria, appeals on behalf of Mallouhi may have little effect at the present time. However, readers may like to send Mallouhi messages of support or their own short poems in solidarity, care of English PEN. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Readers may also like to think of ways Mallouhi’s poem can be circulated as widely as possible – at writers’ readings, in newspapers, on notice boards, or through websites, blogs and social networks.
Readers may nonetheless like to send appeals: condemning the continuing detention of poet and blogger Tal al-Mallouhi solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to free expression; calling for her immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a signatory; and seeking assurances of her wellbeing in detention.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Dr Sami Khiyami
8 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PH
Email: email@example.com Fax: 020 7235 4621