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“A Country of Dark Corners”: Freed Journalist Dorothy Parvaz on Her Syrian Detention and the Assad Regime Crackdown

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Al Jazeera correspondent Dorothy Parvaz disappeared for 19 days when she flew to Damascus to cover the uprising there at the end of April. Parvaz was jailed in a Syrian prison, where she underwent interrogation and witnessed the abuse of pro-democracy protesters. She was ultimately deported to Iran, where she was detained again and then finally released. We speak with Parvaz about her ordeal and the unfolding human rights crisis in Syria. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Syria, where a teenage boy who was tortured and killed allegedly by state security forces has emerged as a powerful symbol in protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Hamza al-Khateeb was arrested during a protest in Saida, six miles east of Daraa, on April 29th, and his body was returned to his family on May 24th horribly mutilated. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says al-Khateeb’s case reveals the impasse between the government and the Syrian people.

SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: With respect to Syria, I, too, was very concerned by the reports about the young boy. In fact, I think what that symbolizes for many Syrians is the total collapse of any effort by the Syrian government to work with and listen to their own people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Human Rights Watch says the ongoing crackdown against pro-democracy protesters may qualify as crimes against humanity. More than a thousand civilians have been killed by security forces, and 10,000 people detained, since demonstrations first erupted in mid-March.

AMY GOODMAN: Journalists have also faced state harassment and violence. Al Jazeera correspondent Dorothy Parvaz disappeared for 19 days after she flew into Damascus to cover the uprising at the end of April. She was jailed in Syria for three days before being deported to Iran, where she was held for another 16 days, then finally released and returned to Doha, Qatar.

Parvaz previously worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for about 10 years. She’s a U.S., Canadian and Iranian citizen. Dorothy joins us now from Vancouver, where she’s been visiting family.

Dorothy, welcome to Democracy Now! We’re very thankful you were released. The situation in Syria is extremely grave. Can you start off by talking about your own experience? You flew in at the end of April to the Damascus airport, and then what happened?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Well, good morning, and thank you for having me.

They basically, at customs, when they discovered that I had a satellite phone in my bag, freaked out, did a strip search, found my American passport in my pocket. And in that passport there’s also an Al Jazeera-sponsored visa. Clearly it states in Arabic that I am a reporter and that I work for Al Jazeera. And that’s when I was detained.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Well, I was wedged between armed men in a car. They tried to blindfold me. I fought that off. They drove me to a compound roughly 20 minutes away from the airport. I think it was north. And then we sort of went through some security checks. And then they took me out, rather roughly, and processed me for some sort of arrest or detention, although nobody explained to me what was happening. They were just yelling at me, before they, you know, blindfolded me and handcuffed me and took me into another — from one prison cell to the next, and interrogated me for three days.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what were the conditions in the Syrian prison while you were there? Were you in contact with any other inmates there?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: I was. The conditions were appalling. I could hear people being beaten, virtually around the clock, men. I was in cells with two different women — in one cell with one woman, then I was put in another cell by myself, then I was ultimately put in another sort of cell-slash-disused office — I don’t know how to describe it — for the remainder of my time there. And these women, these young women, were, to my — in my estimation, clearly not protesters, clearly not rabble-rousers. I mean, one of them was there with a pair of stiletto heels, so that told me pretty clearly that this woman did not leave her home intending to protest or be arrested that day. She indicated that she was a clothing store clerk and that she wasn’t sure why she was rounded up, but that she was on her phone when a car pulled up in front of her. She was taken from the street, blindfolded and brought there, and she wasn’t told why. The other woman was a young girl, really, 19 years old, and terrified. She had been there, by the time I left her, for 10 days. And she, too, said she had been rounded up. She was from a suburb of Damascus. Things around her had gotten chaotic, and she had just sort of been picked up along with a bunch of other people, when she was basically just going about her business. She was not protesting either. So —- and these girls were terrified. The 19-year-old kept pleading to be able to call her parents, and they wouldn’t let her. So -—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you think you were going to survive?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: At one point, I did not think I was going to survive. The first night I was there, they handcuffed me, blindfolded me and took me out in this courtyard, and put me up against the wall and told me not to move. And I could hear two distinct sets of interrogations and beatings going on in either direction, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I thought, “Are they going to shoot me? What are they doing? And why are they beating these men?” I mean, I use the word “interrogations” because it seemed like maybe they were asking them questions, but they were being beaten to within an inch of their lives, I’m sure, from the sounds of it. So it sounded more like torture. But ultimately, they took me back to my cell, after leaving me standing there for about 20 minutes, asked me a couple questions, and then took me back before they took me for an interrogation at around midnight.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how was it that you ended up in Iran? And actually, you spent much more time in detention in Iran. But what were the conditions like there, as well?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Well, I ended up in Iran because Syria, even though they told me they would be sending me back to Qatar, at the last minute decided to not do so. And so, they just sort of forced me onto a plane to Iran — some sort of bizarre form of extraordinary rendition, I guess. I’m not sure. But I entered their country on an Iranian passport. And so, they had indicated to the Iranian government that I was a spy, and so they sent me back to Iran, where I was investigated and interrogated for an additional two weeks.

The conditions in Iran were quite different. I was in the Evin detention center for women, not the prison, but the detention center, which is a little different. It’s in the same compound, but it’s a different facility. And I was treated well there — I mean, within the context of not being able to call my family, not having access to an attorney. These are Iranian laws, and I’m subject to them also. So, but I was treated relatively well. Nobody raised their voice to me. Nobody beat me. I didn’t hear anybody being beaten. And I was provided with clean accommodations and food for just over two weeks, I guess, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And were there — what kind of questions were asked of you? Were you interrogated in Syria and also in Iran?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Right. In Syria, they were completely initially baffled by what I was doing there. But once they determined that I was in fact not a spy, and an Al Jazeera reporter, they were just wondering what I wanted to report on. And most of the interrogation really had more to do with the interrogator lecturing me on the issues surrounding reporting in Syria and how Al Jazeera was basically on par with human rights groups and causing problems for the country, that nothing really was happening. But, you know, at the same time he’s saying that, you know, we’re making a big deal out of nothing there, that this is just a minority of people protesting and that most of the country is happy and they don’t want change, he’s also telling me that they had been so busy with interrogations and so overflowing with people coming into their detention centers that he has to interrogate me in this, you know, bizarre little room that’s kind of like part kind of food storage, part dorm, and it’s not really meant to be an office. So it seems to me like they’re trying to have it both ways there.

But most of his questions had more to do with journalism than anything else, and of course a lot of questions about my life, in terms of trying to determine my identity. And after they told me that they believed that I was not a spy and that I am a journalist for Al Jazeera — and they gave me a large list of points they wanted me to raise with my employer — they sent me to Iran as a spy. And in Iran, all of the questions basically had to do with establishing my identity — who I am, who I work for — and, you know, trying to determine whether or not I’m a U.S. spy.

AMY GOODMAN: What points did they want you to raise with Al Jazeera in Syria?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: In summary, stop covering us. But basically, you know, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, where everyone is happy here. You’re focusing on the negative. There’s lots of happy people. You know, focus on that. Be fair. Apply best practices in journalism. And hearing those words was quite something, coming from them. But anyway, yeah, that’s basically the sum total of it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Dorothy, as the reports have continued to come out of Syria about the increasing crackdown, hundreds killed, even now children being beaten and killed, your sense of how that movement for democracy is developing, and whether you would go back there?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Well, obviously, I don’t think I could go back there any time soon. I would — as a journalist, my instinct is to want to go back. This country is a country of dark corners to me right now, and I really wish that more journalists were allowed in to shine a light. It’s heartening to see that reports are coming out, that there are a lot of people risking a lot to — including Syrian independent journalists, I’m sure, and human rights activists — to get information out. So that’s heartening.

But, of course, it’s just — you know, reading reports such as what happened to Hamza al-Khateeb — and I urge your listeners to not just, you know, take the headline that a 13-year-old boy was tortured and killed. Read accounts of it. The account I read on my own website, on Al Jazeera’s website, was pretty much the worst thing I’ve ever read. And this should — this says a lot about what this government is willing to do, the license they give themselves in allowing their agents to treat a child this way. Just imagine how little restraint they’re showing towards adults if they treat a 13-year-old child the way they treated that boy. It’s horrifying.

AMY GOODMAN: Dorothy, talk about what happened to him. He has — it is not as if the movement hasn’t been in full motion in Syria, but he has reignited — his brutal death has reignited the anti-government movement right now and the people protesting in the streets.

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Right. I mean, it’s understandable that people would be furious about this. They arrested this child the same day, actually, that I was detained. And they beat him and tortured him and mutilated him and cut off body parts. The description of what happened to this child is so graphic and so uniquely horrifying, and just as horrible as the contrast to how lovely a child he seemed to be. Like, there’s descriptions of him as a living human being, as part of a family, as this caring human being growing up and being curious about the world around him. And this is what happened to him. His father apparently fainted when he looked at his body. His mother was only allowed to look at his face, but his father just passed out. So, I’m not surprised that he’s sort of galvanizing a movement and sort of solidifying anger towards the government, because this is just a new low, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are your plans now, Dorothy? You were working for Al Jazeera. Before that, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was functioning, was a newspaper, you were working for them for 10 years. Are you going to continue to work for Al Jazeera now?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Absolutely, yeah. As soon as my time off is done and I’m done visiting my family, I plan on going back to Qatar and continuing to work. Absolutely. What else would I do?

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have plans on where you’re headed next?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: Well, no, I have to sort that out with my bosses. But no, no, I have no plans as of yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Why have you decided to continue?

DOROTHY PARVAZ: It’s what I do. I mean, journalists, we’re sort of these — you know, we’re these creatures of habit, and I can’t imagine what else I would do. I mean, anybody who thinks we just do this for a paycheck needs to, you know, get their heads checked, because I could fold sweaters at the Gap just as easily, frankly, and probably be far less stressed out. But it’s what we do. We engage with the world around us. I’m curious, just like any other journalist is. And I can’t imagine suddenly having that — taking leave of that curiosity and wanting to be engaged with the world around me, just because I had a rough experience. That’s not going to stop me.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dorothy Parvaz, we want to thank you very much, correspondent for Al Jazeera English, held for 19 days, three days of that in Syria, when she flew into Damascus to cover the uprising, and then deported to Iran, where she was held for 16 days, now speaking to us from Vancouver. Thanks so much for being there, and we’re glad that we can talk to you in freedom, Dorothy Parvaz.

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