An estimated crowd of more than 20,000 has turned out for the funerals of victims killed in a Syrian government attack on a mosque housing protesters in the city of Daraa, which in recent days has seen some of Syria’s largest demonstrations in decades. Twenty-five people have been confirmed dead, but witnesses say the toll could be far greater. Daraa is under curfew, and the Syrian government has reportedly issued announcements telling residents they will be shot if they leave their houses. We speak with prominent human rights attorney Haitham Maleh in Damascus and with his son Iyas Maleh in Brussels. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin today’s show in Syria, where protests have been intensifying in the southern city of Daraa. At least 15 people died on Wednesday, a day that began with Syrian soldiers and plainclothes security agents raiding a mosque housing protesters. But there have been reports the death toll may be significantly higher.
It’s been difficult to get information out of Daraa, which in recent days has seen some of Syria’s largest protests in decades. Cell phone lines have been cut off. The city is under curfew. And the Syrian government has reportedly issued announcements telling residents they will be shot if they leave their houses.
Amateur video has been posted online showing the bodies of protesters lying in the streets of Daraa. In one video, the sound of gunfire fills the air.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Amnesty International is reporting the Syrian government has also been sweeping up dissident students, intellectuals, journalists and activists across the country. Amnesty has identified 93 people who have been detained since March 8th. Many are still being held in unknown locations.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us on the phone from Damascus, Syria, is one of the Syria’s best-known human rights defenders, Haitham Maleh. He’s 80 years old, an attorney, former judge, founder of the Human Rights Association in Syria, released from prison earlier this month after being held for a year and a half on charges that he weakened national morale. He was previously imprisoned without being tried or charged between 1980 and 1987. He has been barred from leaving Syria since 2004.
And we’re joined by Haitham’s son Iyas Maleh, who is a longtime human rights activist. He heads up the Haitham Maleh Foundation, splitting his time between the United States and Brussels, from where he joins us now.
We’re going to begin in Damascus with Haitham Maleh. What do you understand is taking place right now? Describe the crackdown.
HAITHAM MALEH: If I want to talk about democracy, and if we go back for 1949, we started as democracy regime in ’45, but the first dictator military regime was created by American embassy in Damascus. You can see that in The Game of Nations, written by Miles Copeland.
Anyway, we are, from 50 years, under emergency case, the country ruled by police, security, intelligence services and so on. And all laws is forgotten because we have emergency case. The regime and the secret police state, if we have an emergency case, so we do not need any law. So, for that, they put people in jail for nothing. We have now more than 4,000 prisoners in several jails without any charge, you see? We have 15 branches of intelligence services, each branch working the same case without any connected between all these branches. So, the situation is serious, is very bad in this side. And the people paid in the past a high tax for free — I mean, in ’80s, when I had been in jail for seven years. When I was in the Bar Associations of Lawyers, Hafez al-Assad canceled the associations, all the bars, and he created a private law to make all the bars follow Baath Party and something like this, or intelligence services.
So, now we try to repeat to ask for our freedom, for democracy in Syria, and we hear what happened in Tunis, in Egyptian. So, the people in Syria is a part of the Arabic people all over the Arabic world. It start not only in south of Damascus, it start in several cities in Syria. But the regime always try to use the high, high punishment by everything, by army, by secret police, by everything. And they arrest the people for nothing, for anything. You know what happened in front of the Minister of Interior: people tried to ask for — to release their — one of their family in jail, so thousands of secret police punish them, pulled them through the street in the car, and then took them to jail. So, this is the background of the system. They did not understand in politic. They did not understand in negotiate. They understand only in force. So, how we can be change is big question.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Haitham Maleh, you’ve been jailed repeatedly. Back in 2006, you were jailed for 10 days for insulting the president.
HAITHAM MALEH: Yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: How has the government been able to justify now these emergency powers that go back more than 40 years, to 1963? What does it tell the people why they must keep these emergency powers?
HAITHAM MALEH: They have to move, because we have also to pay the tax for free. Any nation, any nation all over the world, paid the tax before us. And now we must believe that we must pay the tax for free. There is no way, because this regime did not understand anything. Myself, I sent several messages by several ways to President Bashar Assad, about eight — eight messages, and also I met the high level of intelligence services or ministers. I talk with everybody: "This way is wrong. We have to change." But ’til now I have no answer.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Iyas Maleh into the conversation, president of the Haitham Maleh Foundation, named for his father. Describe what is happening in Daraa right now, what you understand, and the roots of the conflict there.
IYAS MALEH: Hi, Amy. Thank you very much for inviting me.
The problem in Daraa started, I want to say almost a month ago, when little kids were spraying, using spray paint, on the wall the phrase "Down with the Assad regime," I believe. Four of them, from the same family, the Beyazid phon. family, were arrested. We are talking about kids between the age of 10 and 13, 14 years old. Then, on the next day, there was also a group of students in elementary school, again under the age of 15, you know. They were screaming in the yard in the school in the break time, "Down with the Assad regime." And 10 of them were arrested by the security services. So, we had about 14 young children detained, until today. I think just yesterday we heard that some of them were released.
So, during that time, the families of those children have put the authorities on notice that if they are not released, then basically the population of Daraa will go down to the street. And sure enough, when they did not release them, then we saw — I believe the first day we had about 10,000 to 15,000 people from Daraa in the streets on March the 17th. On that day, six people were dead. The next day, we heard of the authorities using gas bombs to disperse people, and a child, 10 years old, got hit with one of the bombs, and he died the next day.
And the death toll keeps increasing. Obviously, as you mentioned earlier, when they barged in the mosque of al-Omari Mosque, we had numbers of death, about 10 to 15 people, lots of injured. The videos that we saw yesterday, as you mentioned, are horrible. We see dead bodies laying down in the street, and people are screaming for help, medical help, doctors. A doctor who was treating people in the mosque of al-Omari was also shot and killed.
This is the situation right now on the ground. The city is under siege. And people don’t have internet or telephone services to use to ask for help. Media is not able to get in and cover, so we are relying on people, you know, sneaking out those kind of videos to follow up with the news.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Iyas Maleh, your foundation, in its report, has made the point repeatedly that the Syrian regime has been able to cultivate an image to the rest of the world of being a moderate, an enlightened and secular government, while the reality is quite different. And you mentioned the internet. Could you talk about how it’s attempted to totally clamp down on the expression, free expression, or dissidence within the country?
IYAS MALEH: Of course. The internet has been very — you know, the people of Syria have been given very limited access to the internet for the past years. They do not have access to Facebook, to YouTube, to any of the social media that the rest of the world enjoy. Then, even while they were having those restrictions, some of the Syrians, activists, were able to use proxies and get around the limitation.
While they were doing that, the security forces still were monitoring what everybody has been putting on their pages, on Facebook and other websites. And they have threatened families of Syrians who live in exile abroad who have put things that the government did not like either on Facebook or on other websites. And those who live inside Syria have faced, you know, major consequences, where they were detained, harassed, called for interviews with the security services several times, and they were pushed around to remove even phrases that they put on their website or on their Facebook. And if they don’t, then their families were put in danger, not themselves even. I mean, they threatened the mother of someone who put something they didn’t like — did not like on their Facebook. They threatened the child of someone who did that. It’s horrible. I mean, they really put the population under siege.
So, later on, after this Arab world uprisings that we’ve seen in Tunisia and in Egypt, Syria decided to open up Facebook. A lot of people thought that maybe this was a good gesture, you know, opening up the internet for the Syrian population. I believe the reason they did that, because they were not able to monitor closely. When people use proxy, then it’s hard to find out who is doing what. They can’t follow IP addresses. And the reason, in my opinion, they opened it up so they can track people better.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Iyas Maleh, we now have the situation in Daraa, not clear how many people dead, Reuters reporting 25, Al Jazeera saying witnesses told them something like a hundred people dead, with the demands being end of emergency law, release of all political prisoners. About 10 percent of the people marched, 20,000 people of 250,000, and a major march is planned tomorrow. What are that plans? What do you expect to see?
IYAS MALEH: Well, we are expecting to see like we saw on March 15th. You know, five different cities have demonstrations, although they were small. Now, with what’s going on in Daraa, we’re expecting the numbers to be — to grow a lot more and to be in more cities than just the five that started on March 15th. I mean, it’s horrible, the things that people are seeing and the messages I’m getting every night. I stay up ’til 3:00, 4:00 in the morning getting messages: "Please do something." I mean, people are begging for people outside to spread the news, you know, and spread the messages so the international community will stand with the Syrian people and not with this regime anymore.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Haitham Maleh, you’re still on the phone from Syria?
HAITHAM MALEH: Yes, I am. Yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You’re 80 years old, recently released by the government. How was your treatment in jail? And what did your jailers tell you about why they were keeping you?
HAITHAM MALEH: In jail, the jail is bad. For me, I stay a year and two months on the ground. I would sleep on the ground. And they put me between the normal criminal, like thieves, killer and something like this. We were in jail, about 30 political prisoners, but each one put him in a separate room. They refused to put us together in one room, because they’re afraid to let us make meeting or speak with each other or planning for future. So, one time I said to the boss of the jail, "Please, let me feel that I am like Marwan Barghouti in Israeli jail." So, I cannot — I have no radio. I asked for transistor radio to hear something; they refused. They said it’s against law. We have — we do not know anything out of jail. We have only channels for sing and dance and something like this, but no news. They’re afraid to let us hear the news, the news of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel that Bashar Assad is any improvement over his father? The well-known massacre of 1982, Hama, in which how many people were killed? Tens of thousands massacred. Then they destroyed the city. Most recently, Vogue highlighted Bashar al-Assad’s wife, talking about her as "the rose of the desert."
HAITHAM MALEH: Yeah, we lost a lot at the time of Hafez through '80s, between 60,000 and 70,000 killed. In jails only, in Palmyra and Mezzeh jail, we lost more than 15,000 killed. Rifaat al-Assad go through jail and kill, by the weapons, by his soldiers, 913 prisoners inside their rooms. It's a crime against humanism. But nobody, no media talk about this point all over the world at that time, when I was in jail seven years. They make everything dark about Syria. No news, nothing happened. Now —
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen now?
HAITHAM MALEH: Now, we have in Daraa more than 100 persons killed, more than, maybe 200 or 300. Nobody knows because everything here in secret way. The regime do not believe in open, to be open with the people. All, everything go by secret way. You know, there’s something happened, strike in Saydnaya jail before, two years. Somebody told me that people who killed in Saydnaya, between 100 and 300 persons. ’Til now, a lot of people ask me where is our son or our husband or our — like this. Nobody knows where is the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this story, with a major protest planned once again for tomorrow. Haitham and Iyas Maleh, thanks so much for being with us. Haitham Maleh, longtime human rights attorney, 80 years old, just recently out of prison, speaking to us from Damascus. And Iyas Maleh, president of Haitham Maleh Foundation, speaking to us from Brussels.