A rare glimpse from inside the prison: father and son al-Abdallah
When Bashar al-Assad came to power, Mohammad al-Abdallah believed things in Syria would finally change for good. Ten years later, he tells the story of a personal disillusionment.
By Mohammad al-Abdallah
Bashar Al-Assad has now been in power for 10 years. To me, that period equates to the length of time that members of my family and I have spent in Syrian prisons.
From the initial hope that accompanied his ascendance to the country’s presidency to this bitter realization a decade later, Syrians have undergone spiraling feelings of disappointment.
When Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, like many other Syrians I was hopeful that an era of change was dawning. We hoped that the new millennium would bring to an end the dark years of the father’s ruthless rule, when prisoners of conscience could die from torture in detention. But the years that followed showed me how misplaced my optimism was.
In the first year of Assad’s presidency, the Syrians experienced briefly the euphoria of change. The country witnessed an overwhelming number of forums of discussion, planning democratic reform. However, this period, which came to be known as the “Damascus Spring”, was swiftly crushed by the authorities. As the whole world was shaken by the terrorist attacks of 11 September in New York, the Syrian government was busy arresting opponents to the ruling Baath regime. Ten of Syria’s most prominent intellectuals were thrown behind bars for peacefully calling for reforms.
Still, many hoped that they would be released soon. They thought the arrests were the making of the autocratic old guards of the regime. They believed that the young president, who wanted to implement reform and change, would eventually grow stronger and defeat the conservatives.
The Iraq War As Alibi
In the years that followed, we realized that nothing had changed. The calls for democracy and freedom of expression continued to be stifled. Yet Assad was still able to convince the Syrians that he was a reformist president who needed more time to accomplish his vision.
The fall of Saddam in Iraq had strong repercussions in Syria.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave him another alibi to delay the implementation of reforms. The so-called existential threat against the Syrian establishment after the crumbling of the Baath regime in Iraq allowed the president to justify the prolongation of oppression on the internal front.
Two years later, a dramatic regional development extended this policy. With the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, widely blamed on Damascus, Syria officially entered a phase of international isolation. Western powers forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the establishment of an international tribunal into the killing of Hariri placed the regime under a sword of Damocles.
It was in this context, in my opinion, that the president showed his tyrannical face. That year was a dramatic time for Syrians, and mainly for my family. My father was arrested in May 2005 for his activities in the Atassi forum, the only space for political discussion that had survived the crackdown on forums in 2001.
A Family Under Arrest
I also went to prison a few months later for merely lobbying for the release of my father. I was released by a military court after a month in detention.
My father was also set free six months after his arrest thanks to a presidential amnesty. I naively believed this would be the end of our ordeals. Little did I know.
Less than half a year later, Assad decided to end the phase of relative tolerance for political dissidents. The secret services were given a green light to crush human rights activists. The message was clear to the Syrians: if you keep on raising your voices, you will end up in jail.
Subsequently, 2006 turned out to be one of the gloomiest years for civil society – and my family, in particular. In one week, all the men in my family were arrested and kept in unknown locations.
My brother was arrested with seven of his college classmates for running an online forum. Five days later, the security services arrested my father and me in two separate raids.
An aerial view of Sednaya Prison (by Google Earth)
It took me five weeks to find my father in the Sednaya military prison near Damascus. He had not been aware of my arrest. My brother was also in the same prison; each of us was on a different floor. I was in a nasty cell two floors underground, my brother was on the floor above me and my father was on the second floor.
After my reunion with my father, we asked to see my brother but the prison insisted that he was not in the same detention centre.
My father and I spent 18 days together in this jail before security agents dressed in civilian clothes transferred us to the Adra prison. There I met 10 other activists who were detained for signing the Damascus-Beirut declaration, a joint statement by Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals calling for the improvement of relations between the two neighboring countries.
I was finally convinced that nothing had really changed between the times of the father and those of the son. We were still living in a dictatorship.
New Waves Of Crackdown
While some analysts might argue that the invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Hariri put the regime at risk and pushed Assad’s government to adopt a hawkish, defensive posture, the relaxation of relations with the west since 2007 proves that this line of analysis is flawed.
As French and US officials poured into Damascus, Assad felt reassured that his regime was no longer in danger. Civil society expected a release of prisoners and reforms to finally ensue. Nothing of the sort happened. New waves of crackdown on activists followed as the US and Europe watched in silence.
After the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Syria became internationally isolated.
Following my release with my father after six and-a-half months in prison, I tried in vain to visit my brother in jail. Defendants tried by the State Security Court have no right to visits by family or even a lawyer before they are sentenced.
Without seeing my brother, I had to leave for Lebanon where I finished law school. All along, something inside was telling me that I would not go back home.
During my exile in Lebanon, I heard that my father, along with 11 other political dissidents, had been arrested again. This marked the point of no return for me. I applied for refugee status at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, in Beirut. For me the word refugee sounded strange. I had never thought before that my country would push me to become one.
Ironically, despite all the ordeals of human rights activists in Syria, I see the first lady, Asma al-Assad, with her camera-friendly looks, telling the western world that the government is trying “to open more space for civil society.” I don’t know why, but every time I see her photogenic face, I remember my mother lying in a hospital bed suffering from kidney disease, heart problems and cancer. She is alone in her hospital room while her husband is in jail, her son is in another prison and her eldest is in exile.
Recently, Assad celebrated his first decade in power. A month earlier, my family was preparing to celebrate for other reasons. On June 17, my father was supposed to be set free after 30 months in prison. The government, however, decided to keep him instead in the same jail where he is facing again the same charges that had led to his imprisonment for a total of four years after three different trials. The charges are the “broadcast of false information that threaten to weaken the national sentiment”.
Can those who argue that Assad is a true reformer look me and my family in the eyes and say so?
Mohammad al-Abdallah is a Syrian human rights activist and writer living currently in Washington DC.