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2011-12-15

As Syria Toll Tops 5,000, Activist in Hiding Urges Global Action to Stop Assad Regime Crackdown

Guests

Razan Zaitouneh, human rights lawyer in Damascus, Syria, currently living underground for her safety. She was recently one of the co-winners of European Parliament’s 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Other winners include Egyptian youth activist Asmaa Mahfouz and Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia, who was awarded posthumously. Zaitouneh has been reporting on the recent protests for various media networks.

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International pressure on the Syrian regime is increasing as the death toll there continues to rise. This week the United Nations estimated the death toll in Syria since March has surpassed 5,000, including hundreds of children. "The regime is given time after time to kill more people and more civilians," says Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer in Damascus who is living underground for her safety. "Every time, there is a new reason, new justification, for the regime to kill more people. It’s as if the whole world is waiting [for] the situation in Syria to reach a certain point. It’s as if the 40 [killed] daily is not enough to take a serious action against the regime." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: International pressure on the Syrian regime is increasing as the death toll there continues to rise. According to opposition forces, Syrian army defectors killed at least 27 government forces on Thursday. On Wednesday, eight soldiers were gunned down by army defectors in a retaliatory ambush after government troops destroyed a civilian car. On Tuesday, 32 people were killed.

Earlier this week, the United Nations estimated the death toll in Syria since March has surpassed 5,000. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said the violent crackdown by the government of President Bashar al-Assad could constitute crimes against humanity. Pillay also said than more than 14,000 people were reportedly in detention.

During his end of the year news conference yesterday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for action against Syria.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: In Syria, more than 5,000 people are dead. This cannot go on. In the name of humanity, it is time for the international community to act.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Wednesdsay, a coordinator with the U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace, Frederic Hof, told a House Subcommittee that President Assad’s repression may allow him to hang on to power, but only for a short time. Hof was questioned by [Congress Member] Gary Ackerman.

REP. GARY ACKERMAN: Is there any chance that the Assad regime survives?

FREDERIC HOF: Congressman, our view is that this regime is the equivalent of dead man walking. But the real question is how many steps remain. I think it is very, very, very difficult to predict or project how much time this regime has. The more time it has, the worse for Syria, the worse for the region. That’s very clear. But no, I do not see this regime surviving.

AMY GOODMAN: That was coordinator with the U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace, Frederic Hof, testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesdsay, being questioned by New York Congress Member Gary Ackerman.

To find out more about what’s happening in Syria, we’re joined from Damascus by human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh. She is underground, recently one of the co-winners of the European Parliament’s 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Other winners included the Egyptian youth activist Asmaa Mahfouz and Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia, who was awarded posthumously. She has been reporting on the recent protests for various networks.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about this latest figure, Razan Zaitouneh, the estimates of more than 5,000 people killed in your country, in Syria?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Yes. Actually, according to our numbers in local coordination committees, by today, the number is more than 5,000. It’s 5,216 who got killed since the start of the revolution nine months ago. And we should say that this is only the numbers which the activists could document, because, in many times, we don’t—we don’t get the names at times because the siege and the cut of the communications. So, we are sure that the numbers are much higher.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And some of the—some Western observers have been claiming that your country is descending into civil war, but the activists object to that characterization, don’t they?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Sure. Some Western say that because there is a free Syria army now to protect civilians, and now it’s armed actions against the army, that would led to a civil war. We should say that we want our revolution to stay peaceful at the end. But how can you convince people, after more than five [thousand] people got killed in nine months, not to defend themselves? And how you can ask the soldiers not to shoot their own people without defend themselves, because they don’t have a choice? They only have to defend themselves against certain death or to shoot their own people.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan, can you talk about the defecting soldiers, those who have switched sides and are now opening fire on Syrian troops under Bashar al-Assad?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Actually, the number of defected soldiers is increasing daily. And daily, we hear about more and more armed actions against the regime army. It’s become more hard for soldiers to stay inside an army which is asked to kill its own people. At the same time, the soldiers have no protection, have no place to go, so they have no choice but to fight back, to defend themselves and also to defend civilians who were ordered to kill.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the actions of the Arab League in trying to isolate the Syrian leadership and the offers of the Syrian leadership now to allow civilians to come into the country to observe in exchange for removal of some of those sanctions?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: I’m not sure about any serious action from the Arab League or any other procedures from the international community. The regime is given time after time to kill more people and more civilians. Every time, there is a new reason, new justification, for the regime to kill more people. It’s as if the whole world is waiting the situation in Syria to reach a certain point. It’s as if the 40 person, or killed people, daily is not enough to take a serious action against the regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, what about the students? How are they organizing?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Since the schools have started for this year, we witness daily protests. It’s not organized, actually. They just—the students finish their schools and go daily after the school and protest. They got arrested, beaten, punished in every harsh way. And recently, what is remarkable, that in Aleppo universities more and more student protest is taking place daily, which is very important because, until this moment, Aleppo wasn’t that involved in the movement, in general.

AMY GOODMAN: How is Bashar al-Assad maintaining his power right now? And what about the lack of Western media in Syria being able to really show the pictures of what’s going on?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Only by killing. There is no—I think not another regime [inaudible] all this violent against its own people, only to remain its power. And for long months, the people respond with nothing but with peaceful protest, with general strike and another peaceful struggle. The protesters themselves, they made a journalist of themselves. They are taking photos. They are reporting the news. They are sending out the news. So that was kind of to make a compensation for the lack of the existence of any media inside the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I wanted to ask you about the character of the protests. In many of the other countries that have been involved in the Arab Spring uprisings, it’s been the capital city where the largest protests have repeatedly erupted. But in Syria, it appears that, while there have been protests in Damascus, that the most fierce and extensive protests are occurring in smaller towns around the country. Is that true? And if so, why?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: It’s only in Damascus and Aleppo where the protest is not in the center of the cities. But in all another cities, it’s everywhere—in the cities, in its countryside, everywhere. And that’s for sure. It’s for main reason is that security exists. The excessive security exists in those two cities. It’s because it has minorities which are not that involved yet in the revolution. It’s because the economic interests there is different. Different reasons for why not the main cities are not that involved in the revolution yet. But in all another cities, it’s very strong everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen now, Razan Zaitouneh? What do you feel would be the most effective way to deal with the regime in Syria?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: We know that longer time of violence by the regime against the civilians mean that more complications, more risk of the revolution get militarized sooner. So, it’s not realistic to leave the situation like this—more killing daily and to just to leave the people face their fate alone. There should be some serious action by the Arab League and international society to help to make an important turning point in the Syrian revolution.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, particularly to an audience listening and watching this in the United States, what role do you think the United States should play at this point?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: The United States and the whole international community shouldn’t only watch what is going on, as they did for long months. The whole world is asking the Syrian revolution to stay peaceful, and they are afraid of any more risk on the region, not only on Syria in the future, but they don’t do—but they do nothing to avoid such risk in the future. Until this moment, for example, there is no resolution in front of the Security Council. Until this moment, they are disable to refer the Syrian file to the International Criminal Court. There is many steps should be taken soon by the international society to help Syrian people in their struggle against this brutal regime.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, I want to thank you for being with us. How are you keeping yourself safe?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: As many of other activists in Syria, I’m living in hiding, trying to continue my activities and to—without getting arrested, too. We know that, at the end, any of us is at the risk of getting killed or arrested, but we want to make this balance between continue our activities and get out of prison as long as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh is in hiding. She is a human rights lawyer, speaking to us from Damascus, Syria. She recently was one of the co-winners of the European Parliament’s 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to look at voting rights here at home. Are they threatened? Stay with us.

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