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Once-Jailed Syrian Father and Son Warn U.S. Attack Would Destroy "Not Only the Regime But the Country Itself"

StoryMarch 04, 2005
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We continue our coverage of Syria with two Syrians who were once jailed in Damascus: a father and son. Leading human rights lawyer, Haythem al-Maleh, joins us from Syria and his son Iyas joins us from Dallas. [includes rush transcript]

We continue our coverage of Syria with two guests that represent a perspective rarely heard in the corporate media: and that is Syrians talking about Syria.

Over the past few months, Washington’s rhetoric towards Damascus has grown increasingly hostile. Syria has been accused of assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a charge they deny. The ensuing mass demonstrations led the pro-Syrian Lebanese government to resign last month. In the wake of the bombing, the White House has been increasing pressure on Syria to withdraw its 15,000 troops from Lebanon.

  • President Bush, March 3, 2005.

Several countries have now joined the call for Syria’s withdrawal. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned Syria risks being "treated as a pariah" if it fails to pull out its forces. His comments come a day after Saudi Arabian officials said Syria risks damaging relations between their countries.

And Ha’aretz is reporting that Lebanese opposition members have now asked Israel to encourage the US to put more pressure on Syria into withdrawing troops.

Reuters is now reporting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is expected to announce on Saturday the withdrawal of some troops and the redeployment of the rest close to the Syrian-Lebanese border.

  • Haythem al-Maleh, one of the leading human rights lawyers in Syria. He is on the line from Damascus.
  • Iyas Maleh, a Syrian human rights activist based in Dallas, Texas.

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: This is President Bush.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The United States of America strongly supports democracy all around the world, including Lebanon. And it cannot flourish so long as Syrian troops are there. It’s time for Syria to get out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Several countries have now joined the call for Syria’s withdrawal. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warned Syria that is risks being "treated as a pariah if it fails to pull out forces." His comments come a day after Saudi Arabian officials told Syria that the country was damaging relations with Saudi Arabia, and Ha’aretz is reporting that Lebanese opposition members have now asked Israel to encourage the U.S. to put more pressure on Syria into withdrawing troops. Reuters is now reporting that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is expected to announce on Saturday the withdrawal of some troops and the redeployment of the rest close to the Syrian-Lebanese border.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the latest news on Syria, we’re joined by two guests. Both are Syrian human rights activists, joining us again, continuing the conversation from yesterday. Father and son. Haythem al-Maleh is one of the leading human rights lawyers in Syria. He’s on the line with us from Damascus. His son, Iyas Maleh, is a Syrian human rights activist based in Dallas, Texas. We ended yesterday’s conversation, Haythem, with you in Damascus. You are Maher Arar’s attorney there, the Syrian-Canadian, who was taken by U.S. authorities when he was transiting through Kennedy airport, put on a plane to Syria, where he says he was tortured, held for a year in a room a little larger than — well, the perimeter — than a grave, and then released without charge, is back now in Canada, and has sued the United States for what is known as extraordinary rendition, being sent to a third country where they know torture is engaged in. You were also imprisoned in Syria, which some might find quite remarkable that you are speaking out right now in Damascus. Can you talk about why you were imprisoned, and what happened to you there?

HAYTHEM AL-MALEH: Yes. I spent seven years of my life in jail, beginning of 1980 ’til last of 1986. Do you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we hear you fine.

HAYTHEM AL-MALEH: Okay. The sound is good?

AMY GOODMAN: Very good.

HAYTHEM AL-MALEH: Okay. So, I am working now in the side of human rights in Syria. I’m the president of the human tights association in Syria since four years. If you want to ask me around the human rights situation in Syria, it’s still as it is, nothing changed in real fact until now. But we are trying to do something to build something on the ground, because everything is destroyed for 42 year, and in the emergency law, in the emergency case, basically.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us why you were jailed, on what charges, how you got out, and normally when human rights activists are jailed in Syria, what are the charges that the government puts on them?

HAYTHEM AL-MALEH: Okay. We started in 1978 as in the branch of Freedom and Human Rights in the Bar Association of Lawyers. I was a member at that time. So, we make a decision in this side, the side of human rights and freedom, and we start since 1978 and at Christian beginning of 1980, we took a decision to stop work, like a strike against war for one day. It was very dangerous for the power, so they ordered to push us in jail. So, I stayed in jail seven years for no answer, no investigation, no sign, no court. Nothing. And we were released, because there was high pressure from the Union Bar Association of Arabic Lawyers, the center in Cairo, as you know. So, they used high pressure upon the power here in Syria. At least we released. There were a lot of lawyers, doctors, engineers jailed at that time between 1980 and 1990. There were around 50,000 prisoners. Some of them killed, around more than 15,000, and some of them released. We have still now around 270 prisoners in one jail [inaudible]. All of them passed around 20 years in jail. And we have 15 branches of television services. Every branch has their own jail out of control of law, out of control of justice. And in these jails there are more than 2,000 prisoners. I couldn’t say if all of them are political, but they have a special mind, special idea. So, at least after I was released, I started before around 14 years as a member of Amnesty International in London, and at least we create our association in Syria and Damascus since four years.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to interrupt by asking your son, Iyas Maleh, who is a human rights activist in Dallas, Texas. You were arrested about the same time as your dad, when you were in Damascus. Can you talk about the circumstances of that, and also what it means when the United States puts pressure on Syria. Who in the country feels the effects of that? Is that helpful, given that you were both imprisoned? Do you think this is a good thing?

IYAS MALEH: It depends where the pressure is coming from. The reason why I was imprisoned was for my activism. The reason my father was arrested was for a petition basically that the Lawyer Bar Association submitted to the president at the time. And I was helping by taking that petition around and collecting signatures. That was really the main reason I was arrested and to put some pressure also on my father to stop his activism also. And again, there is no charge. You get picked up from the street. They don’t send you to court. You are just picked up and thrown in the prison cell, interrogated, tortured, beaten, and later on, whenever they decide the reason why they want to release you, they will release you without any, again, any court deciding that. No court decides for what term you are going to serve in prison. Now, as far as pressure from outside, pressure from organizations like Amnesty International, is good pressure. Pressure from governments when they have good relations with Syria is good, because they will tell them, you know, if you want us to do this for you, then you need to release, you know, prisoners. But the way pressure right now, I think, is, unfortunately, the United States administration is putting on Syria, I think it might be very harmful for certain prisoners. Syria has no fear of killing prisoners that they don’t want them to, you know, say something after they are released. So, if they have any fear right now, from certain prisoners, I would doubt that they have any fear of basically getting rid of them, in case, you know, they were forced to release them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Iyas, I’d like to ask you, if there has been, if there is such a dictatorship there where there’s no rule of law, no trials, why has there not been a greater resistance on the part of the Syrian people to the government, or is there a larger resistance movement than we have been led to believe here in the West?

IYAS MALEH: Oh, yes. There was a large resistance back in the late ’70s, early ’80s. The harsh government regime in Syria crushed it. We never heard in the media here anything about what happened in the city of Hama in 1980. In a few days, the Syrian regime sent their troops to the city where they claimed the opposition was concentrating, and they basically bombarded the hell out of it. They killed 30,000 people in a few days, and nobody raised an eyebrow in the West on what was going on there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why was that? Why did no one, no government in the West say anything about the murder of that many people?

IYAS MALEH: Because they were the one who put that regime in power.


IYAS MALEH: Why would they say that regime was a bad regime?

AMY GOODMAN: How did the U.S. put them in power?

IYAS MALEH: How? By coups, by helping the administration, providing them with, you know, all of their needs, the money they need, the weapons they need, doing business with them. That’s how they put them in power.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to end with your father, with Haythem al-Maleh, speaking to us from Damascus. What is the effect of the U.S. government now naming Syria as part of the axis of evil, going after it, saying it’s part of the destabilization of Iraq, of Lebanon, in the rhetoric suggesting that the U.S. or Israel might attack? What kind of effect does that have on pro-democracy activists on the ground in Damascus, Haythem?

HAYTHEM AL-MALEH: We have now in Syria a big problem. Because, as you know, 42 years under emergency law, emergency case, all the political and society life is destroyed. So the objection now in Syria is weak, like the power. The power also weak. But as you know, there is high pressure upon Syria from outside, especially from the side of the U.S. This kind of pressure makes the power here in Syria nervous. On the second hand, they said, okay, we are under pressure, we are afraid, so we have to continue rule the life by emergency case because of the outside pressure. And on the second hand, what happened in Iraq makes our lives bad because also we are scared. We do not want to have any problem in Syria like what happened in Iraq, destroy everything, not only the regime, the country itself.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much, Haythem al-Maleh, for joining us, and your son, Iyas Maleh, joining us from Dallas. Haythem al-Maleh joining us from Damascus.

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