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Syrian Human Rights Lawyer Razan Zaitouneh Speaks from Hiding, Says Over 4,000 Killed in Uprising

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Daily protests continue in Syria even as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates the government has killed more than 3,500 people during the last eight months in its attempt to silence a growing popular uprising. Over the weekend, protesters carried out a general strike in several cities. We get a live report from Damascus from Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer and human rights activist, who says she believes at least 4,133 people have been killed. “At the same time that the protests are continuing around the country daily, the average of killing is also increasing. It’s now at least 30 persons get killed daily by the regime in different cities of the country, especially in Homs and Hama and Idlib,” Zaitouneh says. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 14, 2011Arab League Suspends Syria, Concern Grows over Foreign Intervention to End Crisis
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today in Brussels, the European Union decided to impose sanctions on 18 Syrians in response to the killings of protesters by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The names of those sanctioned will be published in the E.U.’s Official Journal in the coming days. As a result of the sanctions, the disbursement of European Investment Bank loans will also stop. The sanctions come after the Arab League formally suspended the Syrian delegation Saturday. Speaking after the decision was taken, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby called on the Syrian government to end its brutal crackdown on opposition forces.

SECRETARY-GENERAL NABIL ELARABY: [translated] What the Arab League is demanding from the Syrian government is an end to the bloodshed, because the Syrian people are suffering. And what we hope will happen as a result of what the Arab League has demanded in this decision that was taken yesterday, of which I’m sure you are aware of, what is being demanded is a framework to offer protection. And I can tell you that this is a new issue for the Arab League.

AMY GOODMAN: The Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria and impose sanctions over its violent crackdown on eight months of protests infuriated Damascus. The decision triggered attacks on foreign missions Saturday night, including the embassies of Saudi Arabia, France and Turkey. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun has said yesterday the opposition Syrian National Council will soon open an office in Turkey. His comments came after meeting with the Turkish foreign minister.

BURHAN GHALIOUN: [translated] I think that we will work together with Turkey, like Arab countries and European countries, to free this country, Syria, as soon as possible and stop the massacre. And equally, we denounce these wrongdoings of this regime regarding what they have done yesterday to the flags of friend countries.

AMY GOODMAN: The Assad government organized a rally in the city of Hama Sunday to oppose the Arab League decision. When people at the rally started denouncing the regime, security forces opened fire, killing at least eight people. The new killings come amidst reports of dozens of deaths over the last several days, most in the flashpoint area of Homs.

In a new report released late last week, Human Rights Watch accused the Assad government of “crimes against humanity” for killings of protesters dating back to April. Citing what it calls the, quote, “systematic nature of abuses against civilians…including torture and unlawful killings,” Human Rights Watch said the U.N. should impose an arms embargo on Syria and refer top officials to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

Speaking in Geneva last week, a spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the U.N.’s new estimate of 3,500 deaths in the Syrian popular uprising is a conservative figure.

RAVINA SHAMDASANI: The brutal crackdown on dissident—on dissent in Syria has so far claimed the lives of more than 3,500 Syrians. More than 60 people are reported to have been killed by military and security forces since Syria signed the peace plan sponsored by the League of Arab States, including at least 19 on Eid al-Adha on Sunday. You will find that our estimate of the death toll is relatively conservative compared to what others are saying, and this is because we rely on corroborated information for it from credible sources on the ground, inside and outside Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: To get the latest on what’s happening in Syria, we’re going to go directly to Damascus. We’re joined by Democracy Now! audeo stream by Razan Zaitouneh. She is a lawyer and human rights activist. She’s been reporting on the recent protests for various networks. And I just want to say, it may be a little difficult to understand her. It takes great risk on her part to even be willing to talk with us today.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe, Razan, what is happening in Syria today?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: At the same time that the protests are continuing around the country daily, the average of killing is also increasing. It’s now at least 30 persons get killed daily by the regime in different cities of the country, especially in Homs and Hama and Idlib. Also, killing under torture, in kidnapping people and killing them and then throw them, it’s these such accidents is increasingly happening every day by the security and shabiha.

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly you’re hearing about Homs and Hama, the government-organized rally to condemn the Arab League for kicking Syria out, and then the Syrian forces opening fire on their own protest?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: They make this rally yesterday in different cities—in Damascus, in Homs, in different cities, actually—and they force employees and students go in these rallies. They force them. They threaten them. In Deir ez-Zor, when a 15-years-old boy refused to participate in this rally, he got shot and killed yesterday. So, to this extent, they forced people to participate in these rallies to show support for the regime, which actually very few people still support it.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the climate right now where you are in Damascus and what it means for you to even risk speaking to us, speaking to the media, to describe what’s going on in Syria.

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Everybody now, it’s—even we still live in worry and fear all the time, because nobody feels secure anymore in this country. But we know that what is going on is taking us very quickly to our freedom. And what we see, even so in Damascus, the protest is not that large like other countries, like other cities, like Homs, for example, but there is daily protest. People are going on and insisting to get their freedom. We are tired after eight months of killing, of rape regime, but we’re still optimistic, and we see our freedom very close to us.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your estimate of the number of Syrians who have been killed by the Bashar al-Assad regime?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: Our number now is 4,133 persons who got killed since the beginning of the revolution. And we consider this number as not final, because every day we got new names and new videos for people who got killed a few days or a few weeks ago, and we didn’t know about them then. So we think that the number is much higher than this.

AMY GOODMAN: The Arab League suspending Syria, the European Union also now meeting in Brussels, what do you make of these measures? Are they significant? And are you calling on the U.N., the U.S. to do anything more?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: We have been waiting for the Arab League resolution for a long time now. They have been just watching Syrian people get killed and do nothing. So, this resolution is very important for us as a Syrian. The international community were saying that they can’t do anything, because Arab countries are still supporting the regime. Now there is no reason to just stay watching. They should do something very quickly to stop the bloodshed, to stop the killing. There are many steps should be taken very quickly, like referring the Syrian regime file to the International Criminal Court, like many, many other steps should be taken.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned that there could be civil war that breaks out in Syria?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: My fear that only to continue like this and not do anything by the Arab and international community is the thing which will lead to civil war in Syria. To leave people to their own fate, just get killed daily with all these numbers, without any kind of protection, that will lead to a civil war in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the general strike in Syria? Activists reporting a general strike has entered its second week in several cities.

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: It was very successful in some cities, like Daraa and Idlib and Homs. It was applied for about 90 percent from those cities. It’s still not successful in other cities, like Damascus and Aleppo. It still needs to pay more efforts to work on these two cities to apply the general strike. We think that in the near future, the main thing we should work, beside continuing the protest, is the civil disobedience, especially in the two big cities, Aleppo and Damascus.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is the Syrian president, why is Bashar al-Assad, hanging on?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: It’s very normal. They all—they feel that they own this country. It’s very difficult to imagine that they leave everything like this, a country who they consider as their own farm for four decades, to leave this simply and go. We know it was difficult for other dictators in the region, but at the end, they will discover that they will have to go, with less loss. They will go at the end. So it’s better if they do that now, with less loss for them personally and for the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, how are you keeping yourself safe?

RAZAN ZAITOUNEH: I’m in hiding, as hundreds of activists and maybe thousands around the country, hiding, moving around from place to place, trying not to go to places where there is a lot of checkpoints, not to use mobile and phones and so on very much. So I’m just taking some procedures to protect myself. But at the end, everybody is under the risk of getting arrested. And it’s OK. We are going on. We are in our country. I’m very happy that I’m inside my country in this historical moment and that I will witness the moment of freedom when it comes. Very soon, I hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Razan Zaitouneh, stay safe. Thank you very much for being with us. She is a human rights lawyer in Damascus, Syria, recently one of the co-winners of the European Parliament’s 2011 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Other winners included Egyptian youth activists Asmaa Mahfouz and Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia, who was awarded posthumously. He had set himself on fire. It was the spark that ignited the Tunisian revolution that led to the Egyptian revolution and beyond. Razan Zaitouneh has been reporting on the recent protests for media around the world. This is Democracy Now! We’ll come back to continue our discussion about Syria, and then we’ll talk about President Obama at the APEC Summit in Hawaii, in a moment.

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