Syria: “Inner-changes are impossible without an international support” (II) | Youssef Bazzi
Syria: “Inner-changes are impossible without an international support” (II) Print
Youssef Bazzi   
Syria: “Inner-changes are impossible without an international support” (II) | Youssef Bazzi - In that sense, you and your colleagues became the opposition. What were the main headlines of that opposition?
We tackled many issues, but the most important were: fighting corruption, stopping secret services from interfering in people’s daily life, closing the secret services centers inside civil districts and transform them to schools, stopping martial laws, reforming the juridical system, and cancelling “exceptional courts” or so-called “financial courts”.

The regime responded in so many ways: indirect pressures, obstructing our work, damaging our finances, then threats, then accusations: “you are traitors, you are opposing President Assad, you are going to jail, ect…”

After a while, the regime started using new methods to shut us up: seduction and blackmail. But we stood strong and never retreated. We had to carry on and defy.

In 2001, when I still believed in reform, Hafez Assad took the constitutional oath. As the usual protocol, he stood in a hall to receive deputies. When my turn came to shake his hand, I told him in front of TV cameras and live broadcast “Mister president, poverty is getting stronger, so are corruption and domination”. And I had almost 10 minutes conversation with him. He responded that the corruption files were not accurate and were not complete yet. I also told him that our parliament sessions should be broadcasted live, like in other Arab counties, for citizens to watch and know. And, of course, I didn’t get a clear answer.

After this incident, the regime started a vicious war of threats and defamations. I was called by the head of the political secret service department, Adnan Bader Hassan, who interrogated me for 3 hours, and said “you will be punished for everything you are doing”. Then the harassment came from the tax department. They sabotaged all my businesses. They decided at that stage to destroy both Riad Seif and I.

In 2001, during the hearing of the government report at a parliament session, I asked to form a committee to investigate the harassments of the secret services, because they violate the article 66 of the constitution, which grants immunity to deputies so they can express themselves freely at the parliament.

Of course, they refuse to form such a committee and the harassments continued and we were portrayed as traitors.

- Why didn’t you resign?
Even though I felt it was hard to continue working normally with those treats and fear, I insisted to stay and defy. I also felt that it was my duty to struggle for my country. Syria faced 2 different scenes: the scene of obvious corruption between “men in power” and their protégés, and the scene of poverty between common people. I had the trust of citizens and received everyday complaints about their sufferings.

- Under which circumstances were you imprisoned?
When Bashar Al Assad became president in 2001, we were convinced that the “president” doesn’t have a magic wand. We knew reforms will take a very long time, especially when Assad chose the most corrupted governor in Syria, Mostafa Miru, and made him a prime minister. We knew that the worst had yet to come. The whole economy was owned by one particular family ruling over all other Syrians.

At that point we became accused of eluding taxes. A new issue came up: the mobile phone. The arrangement was that this project will be owned by the ruling family and not by the people or the Syrian state. Although, many states had reform their economy because of mobile phones projects.

I asked questions about this project during parliament sessions, and I was backed up by Riad Seif, who studied the project using the help of experts and international reports, and then uncover to the council and to the public opinion the amount of billions that the national treasury will loose if this project remained in the hands of the ruling family.

The regime was fed up with us and started faking accusations to start the attack. My attitude was: after 15 years of public work, I’m not going to allow the regime to disgrace my personal history. I published most of my interpositions and issued the statement of 10 points I mentioned earlier about corruption and secret services, ect…

At the end of my statement, I announced that I will fast for one week, to draw the attention of the media and of other international parliaments.

Delegations from different districts started coming along with the media. The third day, 50 cars blocked the neighbourhood, carrying 30 officers and dozens of armed secret services agents. I was transported to a court in Damascus, where I started the journey that I still consider the most important mission I carried in order to uncover the reality of that regime which has no respect for laws, constitution, or human beings. The regime that arrests deputies because of their ideas.

- How did the trial proceed?

The worst judges were appointed to that case which only lasted 5 sessions. A group of lawyers and volunteers and human rights activists formed a defence committee. Some of its members were Haytham El Maleh, Khaleel Maatuq and Anwar El Buni, who is now in prison, and others. The solicitor Habeeb Issa was present during the preliminary sessions, and 26 days after the beginning of my trial, he was put in jail with others known as “the prisoners of Damascus spring”.

- Who are “the prisoners of Damascus spring”?

At the time, they were Riad El Turk, Kamal El Labuani, Dr Tello, Dr El Buni, and Aref Daleela.

- What happened during that trial?
They wanted it to look real. But our persistence and the gathering of intellectuals and civil society and human rights activists around us, made them feel that they were in trouble. So, they stopped the whole charade in a very barbaric way, and even forbade us to bring witnesses into the court room to defend ourselves.

Still, Damascus was great. Before each session, people gathered outside the court room to throw rice and flowers at us in front of the media and foreign diplomats.

The trial ended quickly and I was sentenced for 5 years. The great lawyer Anwar El Buni was standing next to me. We clapped and say to that butcher judge Jassem Mohamed “not enough… the country is far more precious than that”. The court room was full of family and friends clapping and crying.

- In which prison they put you, for how much time, and how was your life in there?
I spent my sentence at Adra prison, wing 8, cell 1. Policemen were always with me in and outside the cell. Conditions were very bad at the beginning. They put so much psychological pressure on us, so we would collapse and write an apology to Bashar El Assad and to the Baath party. We refused: we are not Bashar slaves, we are deputies elected by the people, he put us in jail and one day he will realize the mistake he made.

Anyway, after a while prison became less hard. For Bashar to visit London, he had to respond partially to European and international pressures. He didn’t free us, but agreed to improve the conditions of our imprisonment.

Our other friends were put in a political jail in Adra, away from ordinary prisoners, and under the supervision of secret services. As for Riad Seif and I, we were put in a criminal prison. Their, I became fully aware of the injustice, the cruelty, and the corruption of the judicial system. I met in there the ordinary, weak, and poor prisoners, who were totally violated by the regime.

- What do you remember from Adra prison?
The fist thing that comes to my mind, is the sadness towards those prisoners, who are the victims of a corrupted regime. I remember their families and children standing behind wires during visitations.

- You were still in jail, the day Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated and when the independence uprising started in Lebanon. How do you remember that time?
We were watching TV when news about the assassination was broadcasted. Seeing that huge explosion and people weeping, felt like a thunder. We cried a lot when Hariri died because he was a special man, and we shared the tragedy with the Lebanese people. I knew since the first moment that the Syrian regime killed Prime Minister Hariri. And I became more and more convinced about that when I saw the press conference in which the Syrian Prime Minister Faruq E l Shareh said, with a face full of hatred, “we were touched by the explosion and its victims”, while the European delegate Moratinos stood beside him shocked, and looking deeply sad.

Then we saw the squares of Beirut between February 14 and March 14 of 2005. Seeing those events from inside the jail brought us various feelings. Some of us considered that changes are coming from Beirut. Others believed that we will face a huge destruction due to the foolishness of the regime.

- You issued a courageous statement while you were in prison. What was the reaction of your jailers?
After the assassination of Hariri, I thought that our time had come and that they were going to kill us in jail. I wrote a statement calling upon the international community to take a firm stand towards the assassins of Prime Minister Hariri and of the Kurdish leader in Qamishli, sheik Maashuq El Khaznawi. I showed in my statement the similarity between the behaviour of Sadam Hussein and Bashar El Assad, and I demanded the formation of an international committee to investigate the assassination of Hariri, El Khaznawi, and Georges Hawi, who was assassinated while I was writing my statement. I also demanded an investigation in Hama’s massacres and in massacres that happened in other Syrian provinces. I demanded as well a blocking of the bank accounts of Assad, Makhluf, and Shalish families, and that these accounts would stay as deposits in the West, so that the Syrian people can reclaim them after the end of that regime.

When my family came to visit me, I smuggled the statement in the laundry. I kissed them and said my last goodbye, since I thought that this was the last time I saw them.

When my statement was published and distributed, five high-ranking officers came to my cell and told me that they are willing to free me if I will deny everything I wrote, and of course I refused.

Three days later, they came back and said: we will free you if you promise at least to deny your statement once you arrive at home. I told them that I am waiting for another trial and that I will head to the hangman’s rope chanting verses from the Koran and the national anthem, because that statement is the summary of my political work.

Anyway, hours after the distribution of that statement, torture began. First, they moved me into an unliveable cell, and they brought into it naked homosexuals to molest me while I was reading Koran. Then, they put loud speakers in my cell, broadcasting continuously songs praising Bashar El Assad. They forbade me from receiving visits. They stopped my medications until my health situation deteriorated dangerously. I was completely cut from my family and from the rest of the world. I lived under a highly pressured situation and I though that they would poison my food. They told me that all my family was also put in jail, and then they spread rumours that my family was dead. They also put mentally ill prisoners in my cell, hoping that I will get hurt.

I spent 7 months under those conditions and I was in a very bad health situation. Once, my blood pressure dropped to 4 and one of the prisoners brought me an oxygen bottle. When the prison director learnt about the incident, he punished that prisoner and put him in a solitary cell under the ground for a whole month.

My 7 months of torture were supervised by the prison director Smeer El Sheikh, who was also the head of the secret services department in Damascus, and a close friend to Maher El Assad, with whom he practiced horseback-riding.

When Syrian authorities released the 2 deputies Maamun El Homsi and Riad Seif, public crowds received them in Damascus. The authorities felt again the dangerous effect of those 2 men, and spread fear through the masses to stop them from going to the 2 deputies’ homes. Maamun El Homsi got himself a passport called “travel permit”. The night of the signing of “the declaration Damascus-Beirut”, he felt the danger once more. Hours later, the authorities arrested some of the people who signed that declaration, including Michel Kilo, Anwar El Buni, Mahmud Issa, Khaleel Hussein, and other political activists. Maamun El Homsi rushed this time to leave Syria through the Jordanian boarder. He lived in Jordan for a while, but had to leave the country, because Bashar El Assad conditioned his participation in Sharem El Sheikh Summit with the deportation of Maamun El Homsi, suggesting that Syria could also “host” the Jordanian opposition.

- How is your relation now with other members of the Syrian opposition, in and outside the country?
When I left Syria, I tried to maintain an equal distance with all the other political oppositions. I carry a message from the Syrian people to deliver to the international parliaments, and I hope that the world will interfere in order to save the Syrians. I have a cooperative relation with all kinds of opposition inside Syria, and I bow with respect in front of those people enduring all those ordeals.

- How do you see the future of the opposition and the future of Syria?
Without its awareness, the opposition made lots of mistakes, including “calling upon” peaceful and democratic change, and “convincing” the regime about the concept of alternating the power. And that is impossible with the Baath regime. On the other hand, the regime is spreading through the media that the alternative would be fanatic Muslim parties and militias. And that is a complete lie. The Syrian people are in general moderated Muslims and Christians. But, the regime is promoting in front of the world, and for the sake of the “security of Israel”, that the alternatives are fanatic and armed groups that will bring chaos and destruction to the region.

I believe that the change is impossible from within Syria without the help and the support of the international community. That is the duty of the international community who let that regime for so long violate the country and the people. The opposition must ensure that this regime will be put on trial.

The danger of that regime is not threatening only Syria. It is a threat to the whole peace in the region. If you want to see the real face of that regime, you should browse the web and look at its electronic sites, and read the hate messages against all Arab leaders. This regime wishes to enflame all the countries which do not submit to its blackmails.

I wish the Arab countries have towards this regime a similar stand to what they had towards the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

- While we are having this interview, Fayeq El Meer is being trialed in Syria under accusations that he made contacts with Lebanese people from “March 14”, and that he participated in Georges Hawi funeral. What do you say about that?
Fayeq El Meer spent 12 years in jail. He is a great fighter for freedom, who sacrificed a lot in confronting dictatorship. And this trial is another proof of the hatred of that regime, wich is the first suspect in the crimes of assassinating the leaders of the “Cedar revolution” in Lebanon.

Youssef Bazzi