Is Syria Holding Fewer Political Prisoners than any other Major Middle Eastern Country?
The Syrian Government has been busy freeing additional political prisoners this week, which made me curious to know just how bad Syria is compared to other major Middle East countries. Could it be holding the fewest political prisoners?
The number of political prisoners in Syria has fallen precipitously over the last decade. In 1991 Hafez al-Asad amnestied some 3,500 detainees. In 1993, Amnesty International estimated that some 4,000 remain incarcerated. In 2001, Human rights organisations estimated there were 1,300 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience being held in Syria. Recent reports claim Bashar has released 800 of these since coming to power. Syrian lawyer and human rights activist Anwar al-Bunni Says 200 remain incarcerated. The Human Rights Association in Syria said the release of the remaining 200 political prisoners is not expected.
Al-Bunni said that the Syrian authorities have been dribbling out the 281 recently pardoned political prisoners (president's forth anniversary in power), most of whom were Muslim Brothers. 161 were released over the two past weeks. 55 detainees were released a week ago Tuesday, another 36 on Monday, and 70 more recently. Bunni said that some 120 amnestied detainees are still being held in prison. He hopes they will be released within the two coming days.
The human rights society in Syria said that on 5 August the Syrian authorities released an additional 35 political detainees, many of whom had spent 20 years or more in custody. One was Immad Sheiha who was a member in the Arab communist organization and spent 29 years in prison. Sheiha and his group were accused of planning and carrying out several explosions targeting trade projects and American establishments in the 1970s. He killed a Syrian guard in the process. Shiha said
Hard to know if Shiha, his name would suggest he is an Alawite, is a political prisoner or a murderer. In Oklahoma he would have been put to death by lethal injection long ago.
prison life was hard, and he had moved at least four times. But the difficulties did not subdue his love for life or his sense of humor, which he said "helped me have hope in life." "I love life and women," he said.
Shiha said the thing he wanted to do most after his release was visit his 100-year-old grandmother. "But I didn't want to give her a deadly shock. So I changed my mind and I went to my aunt's instead," he said. Now that Shiha has his freedom back, he would like to find a job and get married. "Working represents human dignity and reveals the true meaning of freedom," he said. However, he said he would not give up his interest in public affairs. He called on the Syrian government to release all political detainees and help rehabilitate former prisoners.
How many political prisoners is Syria holding?
Lebanese in Syria General Aoun's group claims that Syria is holding no less than 200 Lebanese citizens in Syria. "This is now an established fact that requires no further proof," says Aoun.
Syria released 50 Lebanese prisoners on Monday, Aug 9, 2004. A group named the Support of Lebanese in Detention and Exile said many of the prisoners were army officers who fought against Syria under Michel Aoun in 1991, a former prime minister whose ouster from power by Damascus heralded the end of the Lebanese civil war. It might be added that the United States gave Damascus a green light in 1991 to take out Aoun and his men. This was done because Aoun had no means of winning his war against the majority Muslim Lebanese population and Syria and Washington understood it could not hope that Aoun, who had made many blunders, would ever win. The Lebanese were tired of civil war and many accepted Syria as the price of stability and an end to 25 years of fighting. Finally, the US cut a deal with Asad: Asad would get Lebanon for help in combating Saddam Hussein and joining the US coalition which was preparing to eject Saddam from Kuwait.
By reasonable estimates, Syria would seem to be holding considerably less than 1,000 political prisoners today, though we don't really know. Bunni and Syria's human rights groups estimate 200 are in jail. But they are only counting Syrians and seem to be speaking specifically about prisoners arrested during the turbulent 1970s and early 1980s.
Many Kurds were rounded up following the riots in Qamishli this spring, although many of those were subsequently released. (Update: Aug: 31, 2004) "The Syrian authorities say that most of the Kurds who were detained on the background of the acts of violence which claimed the lives of 30 persons were released, but the Kurdish parties say that more than 180 [Kurdish]detainees are still held in the government' s jails."
Finally there are the 200 Lebanese prisoners from the 1980s that Aoun spoke of, many of whom are still unaccounted for, though some have been released. Surely there are other prisoners we don't know about, but the total would appear to be considerably less than 1000 and possibly half that. Syria also detained fleeing Iraqis during the last several years, some of whom it returned to Saddam Hussein in exchange for favors during his last years in power. Most of the Iraqi refugees, it permitted to remain in Syria or helped to gain asylum in the US, Australia, and Canada through the UNHCR offices in Damascus, where my sister-in-law was a case manager for thousands of their files. Many had been horribly tortured. Many did get refugee status outside the Middle East. The remaining are now free to return to their families.
Egypt is much worse than Syria in numbers of political prisoners:
Saad Eddin Ibrahim recently wrote that the number of political prisoners in Egypt has skyrocketed over the last decade. He writes: "The number of detainees and political prisoners jumped tenfold, from 1,850 under Sadat in September 1981, to over 18,000, according to the 2003 report of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights." Amnesty International claims: "Torture is systematically practised in detention centres throughout Egypt, and victims of torture and their relatives continued to report harassment by security agents. The death penalty continued to be used extensively by criminal courts.
Turkey is not much better than Egypt, despite EU pressure.
Over 10,000 political prisoners were being held in Turkey in 2001. I can't find more recent estimates, but recent Islamist and Kurdish bombings means the jails must be filling up again after a brief respite as Turkey sought to improve its human rights record.
Iraq: We won't talk about it: I don't know how many thousands of Iraqis the Americans are holding. In theory the Iraqi interim government should be in charge of prisons now, but the interim government has neither the man power nor trained personnel to oversee them. Not that the US had enough trained personnel either. 5,000 detainees were estimated held in the two biggest US-run prisons in the country, on August 2, 2004. I don't know about other prisons. The Allawi government has arrested many more.
Jim Lobe points out that US-Backed Tunisia is holding some 500 political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of the top Islamist leaders are held in isolation. And this, Lobe points out, is the "country chosen by U.S. President George W. Bush as the base for his plan to democratize the Middle East."
Roger Clark, head of Amnesty International's delegation to Algeria who carried out his first fact-finding mission there for over two years in 2003 say the following:
The situation on the ground is very worrying and hasn't really improved. Amnesty
International has always considered impunity a central issue, and it's still there, as serious and urgent as ever. Until justice is done, that's how it will stay. The problem is that crimes committed by the security forces, the GLD militia [anti-Islamist militia armed by the state] and armed groups go unpunished. We're talking about abductions, murders and other rights violations.
The relatives of the missing people we talked to are still grieving. They don't know whether their loved-ones are dead or in prison. How many people have disappeared? Some say 4,000, others 7,000. There are seldom investigations and the few there have been have never resulted in anything.
What about torture?It's still practised widely against people being held in detention, especially if they're thought to have links with terrorism. We talked to torture victims and lawyers who told us electricity was used.
Saudi Arabia seems to be in Syria's league. Historically it has been quite a bit better than Syria in terms of political prisoners, though probably not today. Amnesty International states that: "Today, (2003) there are probably between 100 and 200 political prisoners, including possible prisoners of conscience, in Saudi Arabia's jails.' Surely, there are two or three times that number today in 2004, now that Saudi Arabia is getting serious about cracking down on radical Islamists. This, of course, is to say nothing about the more subtle and internalized repression of women and Shi'a.
At least 79 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2002, and over 5000 Iraqi refugees continue to live in Rafha camp (they were collected in 1991) as virtual prisoners as of 2002. They are now finally free.
The Hashemite Kingdom, bless its heart, would seem to be the winner among the major states of the Mashriq with the fewest number of political prisoners. Amnesty International does not estimate the number of political prisoners in Jordanian jails, but the 2002 report claims "that hundreds of people, were arrested for political reasons" in 2001, and there were reports of torture or ill-treatment of detainees by members of the security services. This year dozens of political prisoners were arrested during the year, some of whom may have been prisoners of conscience. There were reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees. Political trials continued before the State Security Court (SSC) whose procedures failed to meet international fair trial standards. At least 15 women were reported to have been victims of family killings. By the end of 2003 more than 1,500 people fleeing US-led military action on Iraq remained in refugee camps. All the same, it seems that Jordan pardons or releases the majority of its political detainees after relatively short stints in jail, rather than holding them for years as Syria did with the Muslim Brothers and Communists.
Does Jordan hold less political prisoners than Syria on a per-capita basis? It must be very close considering it has a third Syria's population at 5,500,000.
Syria has a much better human rights record today than most countries of the Middle East, if not the best. Hama is now almost 25 years in the past, though it is still being invoked by opponents of the Syrian government to insist that it has one of the most brutal regimes in the Arab World. The lack of any separation between the judicial and executive branches of government is bad, there is no getting around it. Torture is still common as it is in most Middle Eastern countries.
All the same, there is no reason for Washington to vilify Syria while it holds up countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey as good allies and gives them a pass on human rights violations. They are all worse than Syria when it comes to detaining prisoners for political reasons and reasons of conscience. Some are a lot worse.
Bashar should be given credit for an important achievement in emptying Syria's prisons of its long held political prisoners and for trying to heal the wounds of his country's mini civil war. He has reached out to the banned Islamic groups, even as he has conceded very little political ground to them. Syria has managed the complex ethic and religious diversity of its population with surprising success. Where Lebanon's state was too weak to keep its uncivil society from coming to blows and killing over 150,000 of its tiny population, Syria has been a paragon of stability. Where the Iraqi state grew so tyrannical and muscular that it massacred 100s of thousands of its own in the name of Arabism and truth, Syria has been a comparative island of tolerance and shown the ability to use force sparingly. Even compared to Turkey (15,000 killed [It is actually closer to 30,000 as one of my commentors corrected me.] in the last 15 years) or Israel (3,131 Palestinians and 972 Israelis have been killed and 26,934 Palestinians and 6,506 Israelis have been injured since September 29, 2000.) Syria does well in terms of body counts.
If you are interested in lectures on American hypocrisy see:
Leave Syria Alone by Glen Chancy (A Christian fundamentalist who swims against the tide) or
"The Appeal of the Ba'athist State - Why Iraqi Christians are Fleeing to Syria" by Gary Leupp (who makes a good point even though he soft peddles Baathism.) Paul Berman does a great diservice in his book Terror and Liberalism by lumping Islamic fundamentalism and Baathism together under the rubric of totalitarianism. Iraqi Baathism may have been totalitarian, but Syrian Baathism is very different from its Iraqi counterpart, largely because Alawites sit at the top of the state. Now that Assyrians are in the news because they are being harrassed again in Iraq, it is worth noting that the Alawites are Syria's Assyrians.
Sulayman al-Asad, Hafiz al-Asad's father compared the Alawites to the Assyrians following the Assyrian massacre of 1933 in Iraq. He wrote to the French mandate authorities shortly after the event, pleading with them not unite the Alawite Territory with the rest of Syria. These are his words recorded in the French archives:
Sulayman al-Asad's sons made sure that Syria would not become another Iraq - a land where the majority was able to tyrannize the minority.
The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered
The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non‑Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.
...The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis‑a‑vis those who do not belong to Islam...
...We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.