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Defending Syrian Youth By: O. Winter
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 02, 2007

Syrian oppositionists have recently been criticizing the oppression of young people - especially students - in Syria, following the imprisonment of seven activists aged 22-32 who were involved in establishing an online youth discussion group and who posted pro-democracy articles online.

The seven, most of them students, were convicted by the Supreme State Security Court, on June 17, 2007, of "taking action or making a written statement or speech which could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country, or expose [the State] to the risk of hostile action against the State or its property," under Article 278 of the Syrian Penal Code.

After over a year in detention without trial - a procedure permitted under Syrian emergency law - five of the activists received five-year prison sentences, while the other two, who were also convicted of "broadcasting false news or reports that could harm the prestige of the State or its financial status," were sentenced to seven years. [1]

These arrests are a reflection of the security apparatuses' oppressive policy against students in Syria. According to an investigative article by communications student 'Amr Matar, which was posted on the culture website www.jidar.net, the security apparatuses keep close tabs on all aspects of university life, causing students to avoid political activity and to be careful about everything they say. Matar wrote: "In the universities, as well as outside them, you often hear [people] saying things like... 'Be quiet, or we're done for,' 'Change the subject, the walls have ears,' and so on. [Furthermore,] the advice given to new students by their families... and by older students... focuses on warnings to steer clear of politics." [2]

The harsh sentences for the seven activists angered Syrian oppositionists, who condemned the severity of the judicial system and called upon Syria's young people to strive towards replacing the regime. The sentences were also condemned by a wide range of Syrian, Arab, and international human rights organizations - including Amnesty International, which called for the activists' immediate and unconditional release. A call for their release was also issued by the U.S. State Department.

The following are excerpts from statements by oppositionist organizations on the imprisonment of the seven activists, and from articles on the issue posted on oppositionist websites.

The Damascus Declaration Organization: The Activists Must Be Released

On June 15, 2007, two days before the activists' sentence was issued, the Damascus Declaration organization [3] issued a statement calling for their release:

"The impending trial of the seven young Syrians who tried to voice their opinion on issues of concern to themselves and to their country... is an opportunity to remind the government and its apparatuses that oppression and arrests are not the only alternative... [The Supreme State Security Court] should release [the activists] instead of oppressing them by means of tyrannical enforcement of the law..." [4]

The "Provisional Ba'th Leadership" [Khaddam]: Young Syrians Must Strive to Replace the Regime

The "Provisional Ba'th Leadership," headed by former Syrian vice president 'Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, [5] published a statement which said, inter alia: "Young men and women [of Syria], have you considered what sort of future awaits for Syria and for yourselves under a regime that considers it a crime to speak out, [a regime] which arrests young people for talking about freedom and democracy and for rejecting tyranny and corruption? What sort of future awaits Syria, and you, under a regime that has sown fear, intimidated [anyone who dared] to think, prevented [public] debate, suppressed [all] initiative, and turned the [entire] state into a large prison;...a regime that has revoked the people's [democratic] role, instated a one-man rule, broken the law, and sunk into corruption?... What sort of future awaits a homeland whose leader is motivated by love of money and by a pathological [need to] control others, usurp their freedoms, and oppress them? What sort of future lies in store for a homeland in which [any] statement by an intellectual or politician [is perceived] by the leader as a threat, [causing him] to intensify his oppression of the people?...

"We [therefore] call on you to fulfill your national responsibility and to organize into units and groups and to prepare... to bring change and to replace the regime - [a regime] that has inflicted oppression and darkness on Syria, and continues to do so at the expense of your future, the security of your people, and the interests of your homeland. You bear the heavy responsibility of launching the movement for change... and of delivering Syria and its people." [6]

Former Syrian MP: It is the Syrian Dictatorship That Should Stand Trial

Oppositionist and former MP Muhammad Mamoun Al-Humsi wrote that the seven activists had not been given a fair trial, and mocked the charges against them: "[These] Syrian students... [these] defenders of freedom, did not receive a fair trial, but were tried by a biased and hostile court that has sold out the homeland and [the principle of] freedom, worked in the service of the ['Alawi] sect, and plundered public funds. The actions of these Syrian students, who are [now] prisoners of conscience and opinion, were democratic, independent, and nonviolent. [The students were merely] exercising their right to express their opinion, and [participated in] Syrian public life in a lawful manner...

"[In response,] the Syrian dictatorship brought false charges against them... [though] they had committed no offense... How can articles defending the liberty of the homeland and the citizen [such as those written by the activists] 'expose Syria to the risk of hostile action' or 'harm its relationship with a foreign country' [as claimed by the charge against them]? [Rather,] it is the terrorist behavior of the Syrian dictatorship which not only harms its relations with foreign countries but endangers security and peace in the region and the world...

"How can liberated, loyal, pure, and blameless words [like those written by activists] put the Syrians [at risk] of hostile acts against their property [as claimed by the charges]? All Syrians clearly understand that it is Assad's dictatorial Ba'th regime that has not only perpetrated hostile acts against the property of the Syrians, but has carried out an organized and comprehensive campaign to plunder [the Syrians'] property and resources, transferring them to suspicious bank accounts and [squandering them] on dubious projects in order to complete the cycle of theft, robbery, domination, and terrorism...

"As for [Syria's] prestige and financial status, the Syrian leadership should seek these in the political, economic, and social dustbins it has strewn all over the country, in every street, neighborhood, and home. It is not the liberal students, but the Syrian dictatorship alone, that should stand trial..." [7]

Syrian Oppositionist Website: The Court's Sentence Was Directed Against Syria's Entire Younger Generation

An editorial on the oppositionist website Syrian Elector stated that the harsh prison sentences meted out to the activists were aimed at intimidating Syria's entire younger generation, which has begun to reject the current situation in the country and to look for alternatives.

"The seven young secular [activists], most of them no older than 22, represent a wide range of sectors within Syrian society, and their only dream was to help spread the culture of democracy in the society in which they live. So why have they been imprisoned? Whom does it serve? The [intelligence] officer who was responsible for the [activists'] detainment told the father of one of the detained [activists], 'These youths are more dangerous than Al-Qaeda, because they come from all sects [and not just from the Sunni sect].' From this statement, we can safely conclude that the court's cruel sentence was aimed at all young people in Syria, from all sectors and [from all sects].

"The purpose of this sentence was to intimidate an [entire] generation, or generations, that have begun to reject the current situation and to seek alternatives. With these sentences, the regime is trying to turn back the clock [and take us back] to the 1980s... But the future is already here... and the hands of the clock cannot be turned back. The regime may revert to the same oppressive methods and go back to that [irrelevant] past that it [so] misses - but Syria's young people are looking ahead, and hoping for a better future. They have begun to realize clearly [that this future] can only be built on the ruins of the current [regime]. The time for sacrifices has arrived, and a new [age] has definitely dawned." [8]

Kurdish Columnist: The Activists' Sentences Kill the Light of Youth

Kurdish writer Mas'oud 'Akou, who resides in Syria, wrote that the Supreme State Security Court had dispensed not justice, but intimidation, oppression, and tyranny: "In accordance with its usual cruel custom, the Supreme State Security Court... imposed [prison] sentences on seven young Syrians, who were arrested over a year ago simply for exercising their right to express their opinion. They believed that justice was on their side, [for] they had not harmed anyone's prestige, and certainly had not 'exposed their homeland to [the risk of] hostile action'... It is the emergency [security] courts that have [harmed] the prestige of our country. To what risk has state security been exposed by [these] unarmed youths, who see themselves as candles trying to spread some light in this dark land?

"The Supreme State Security Court [hands down] these cruel sentences in order to stamp out any new spring and hack off any budding branch, even though everyone - even the judges of this court - knows that the Syrian constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the democratic [right] of peaceful assembly. These sentences have nothing to do with justice... On the contrary, they represent fear, intimidation, oppression, and tyranny, and an attack on [freedom of] opinion. [They are an attack] on the dignity of any Syrian who sees [reality] from a different perspective [than the regime does]...

"The seven young Syrians will rot behind bars... their youth will pass in misery, moment by moment... The [forces of] darkness are killing the light of youth." [9]

Syrian Columnist: The Younger Generation is Living Under Threat

Kurdish Syrian columnist 'Abd Al-Baset Sayda wrote that the security apparatuses' tight control over various sectors in the country is forcing young Syrians to be loyal to the regime: "The current Syrian regime - represented by the security apparatuses - maintains tight control over the universities and the military, and over the [labor] unions, which [in turn] control the industrial and service sectors... This means that young people in Syria are shackled by threats, interests, and the fear of an uncertain future... Positions of command [in the military] are attained only through unswerving loyalty to the [tyrants] who keep the people in shackles, [instead of being attained] through experience and devotion to the country and the people... As for other [types of] posts, each has a price that must be paid - in cash - to the security apparatuses, which have the final say when it comes to appointments. They have the power and authority to intervene and, when necessary, to order the dismissal, suspension, or transfer [of any employee]. This forces an employee to stay within the permitted [limits] and to avoid anything that might threaten his livelihood - which, in a poor country like ours, is all-important." [10]

*O. Winter is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGMDE240362007?open&of=ENG-SYR ; http://www.thisissyria.net/2007/06/17/syriatoday/05.html.

[2] http://www.jidar.net/arabic/3680.html, As an example of the security apparatuses' extensive involvement in the universities, the website Syrian Elector reported on a communications lecturer at Damascus University who is also a Syrian intelligence agent. According to the report, this lecturer draws students out in discussions on political issues in order to determine their views and to identify dissidents among them. See http://tharwacommunity.typepad.com/syrian_elector/2007/07/post-7.html#more .

[3] The Damascus Declaration is an umbrella organization of oppositionist Syrian parties and forces that signed the October 2005 Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change. The document stressed the need for democratic change in Syria and for the end of the military regime that has controlled the Syrian people for over 30 years. It called, inter alia, for the establishment of a democratic government in Syria, for the abolition of the emergency law, for the release of all political prisoners, and for a solution to the Kurdish problem. Among the signatories were the Committees for Reviving Civil Society, the Kurdish Democratic Front in Syria, the National Democratic Union in Syria, the Syrian Committee for Human Rights, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.

[4] www.damdec.org, June 15, 2007.

[5] The "Provisional Ba'th Leadership" is a shadow leadership recently formed by Khaddam - currently a leader of the Syrian opposition in exile - in cooperation with other members of the Ba'th party inside and outside Syria.

[6] http://www.thisissyria.net/2007/06/26/syriatoday/13.html.

[7] http://www.free-syria.com/loadarticle.php?articleid=20058.

[8] http://tharwacommunity.typepad.com/whereto_syria/2007/06/post_29.html. Also, a letter posted on the site condemns the hypocrisy of the Syrian regime. See http://tharwacommunity.typepad.com/syrian_elector/2007/06/post_36.html.

[9] http://www.thisissyria.net/2007/06/18/writers/02.html.

[10] http://www.thisissyria.net/2007/06/03/writers/02.html.

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