While the media is busy focusing on the troubling story of the two American soldiers detained at Guantanamo Bay for alleged espionage, both of whom had Syrian connections, another Syria story has passed them by. The names of Ahmad al Halabi, an American of Syrian descent, and Captain James Yee, a convert to Islam who spent four years in Damascus before returning to active service, are now well known. But the name of Nizar Nayouf, a Syrian journalist and human rights activist that was detained last week by French police in Paris, will most probably stay anonymous. Nayouf’s only crime is that he opposes the regime in Damascus, a regime that the French government wishes to appease.
Nayouf is a genuine Syrian dissident. Born in Syria in 1962, Nayouf graduated from the University of Damascus in 1987. He became a journalist shortly thereafter serving as Editor-in-Chief of Sawt al-Democratiyya (Voice of Democracy). Nayouf chose to be a human rights activist. He founded the independent Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), a nascent human rights network that the government all but crushed between December 1991 and March 1992. Seventeen suspected CDF activists, including Nayouf, were tried by the Supreme State Security Court in February and March 1992. They were charged with membership in an illegal organization and with the distribution of illegal, anti-government propaganda. Fourteen were sentenced to between three and ten years in prison. Nayouf received the longest sentence and spent the following nine years in the notorious Palestine Prison, a facility reserved for political prisoners and run by the Syrian Intelligence Service, the Mukhabarat. Nine years later he left with permanent spinal injuries, paralysis in his lower extremities and skin disfigurements from cigarette burns. He also suffers from a left kidney failure, a bleeding gastric ulcer, and severely deteriorating eyesight.
None of these horrors was enough to silence him. Just over a year ago Nayouf made it to France. He successfully sought political asylum and was granted it in 2002. But then, the curious problems began. The French government refused to give him access to his official documents. He has tried, and failed, several times to obtain a refugee passport, particularly after he was invited to Washington to speak at a conference that aims to examine Syria’s record of human rights and political reforms. He tried as recently as last Monday, September 16, 2003 to obtain a passport when he visited his local police station in Porte de Vanves. The police denied him the passport on the pretext that France was seeking to protect him from the Syrian regime. Mr. Nayouf was then “advised” not to attend the conference and speak out against Syria. The conference, to be held on September 29 in Washington DC, has been arranged by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The conference aims to discuss the Syrian role in the Middle East and provide a platform for non-Ba’athist Syrian politicians and dissidents.
Like Halabi and Lee, he too was interested in sharing intelligence – although a different kind of it. He wanted to tell Americans and the world how people like Halabi reach places like Guantanamo Bay and how people like Yee become Al-Qaeda sympathizers. Mr. Nayouf would like to share stories about how people like him ended up in Syrian prisons and are now, thanks to our friends overseas, barred from raising their voices against oppression.
Nayouf was hoping to give a first hand account of how people suffer under the Ba’athist regime in Syria. Instead, he is trapped in a new prison, albeit in beautiful Paris.
Nir Boms is the Vice President of the Washington Based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.