One man's cultural capital is another man's jail

At the opening of the year-long Arab Capital of Culture 2008 celebrations, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad extolled Damascus as 'the capital of freedom and the defense of freedom.' His words rang hollow to many of Syria's cultural elite who are rotting in the country's jails.
Damascus cultural capital 2008
Many Lebanese were outraged that their cultural icon, Fayrouz, agreed to perform in Damascus. R.R.

BEIRUT, Mar. 7, 2008 (MENASSAT) – When Damascus was crowned the Arab Capital of Culture 2008 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), president Bashar al-Assad praised the honor, saying in his speech on the opening of the one-year long celebration on January 10 that the selection is an acknowledgment of the city's "resistance culture."
"Damascus is the capital of resistance culture by symbolizing Arab culture – the culture of freedom and the defense of freedom," said Al-Assad.

But as hailed Lebanese singer Fayrouz, an emblem of Arab culture, took the stage in Damascus in late January to give her first performance in Syria in twenty years as part of the cultural capital celebrations, a number of members from Syria's political opposition, including writers, poets, and sculptors, were unable to attend – they were in jail.

"It's ironic that Damascus is being celebrated as the Arab cultural capital this year," Ammar Abdulhamid, an exiled Syrian lawyer and Executive Director of the Tharwa Foundation, a web portal for bloggers and activists in the Arab world, told MENASSAT.

"What is there to celebrate when the Syrian culture is censored or put in prison? The writers, the intellectuals, the journalists... they're all gone. Is culture about crackdown and totalitarianism?"

Damascus Declaration

The latest clampdown on Syrian opposition activists started in early December when more than a hundred members of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change, an umbrella group comprised of a wide array of activists advocating democratic reform, gathered to elect a new executive committee.

More than forty of the signatories were arrested by state security shortly after the meeting on December 9. Many of the arrestees were released a few hours later but ten high-ranking members were kept in custody.

The detainees include some of Syria's leading opposition players; among them Akram Al-Bunni, Secretary-General of the Damascus Declaration, Fida'a Al-Horani, President of the Executive Bureau of the National Council of Declaration, and members Ahmad To'meh, Jaber, Al-Shufi, Mohammed Darwish, Marwan Al-Aashi, Walid Bunni, Mohammad Yasser. Two journalists, Fayez Sara and Ali Abdallah, are also being held.

On January 28, the group was charged before a Damascus court with "publishing false information," "membership of a secret organization aimed at destabilizing the state" and "attacking the prestige of the state."

"The authorities viewed the movement as a real threat. It was developing and spreading quickly," said Abdulhamid.

Riad Seif, President of the General Secretariat of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, was also arrested a few hours after attending the court hearing under the same charges as the detainees.

Most recently, Dr. Kamel Maowil, an Islamic activist who also attended the December meeting, was detained on February 21. Mohamad al-Abdallah, son of the arrested journalist Ali Abdallah, told MENASSAT that Maowil's arrest has been confirmed but that there are no further details regarding his detainment.

Several of the detainees have told of beatings and assaults while in custody. Al-Abdallah claims that his father suffered severe beatings to the ear and was prevented from seeing a doctor. Seif was arrested despite the fact that he suffers from severe prostate cancer.

According to Al-Abdallah, Al-Horani was hospitalized on 24 February upon request of the prison doctor. He said that the 51-year old physician and grandmother had been prevented from seeing her lawyer and family at the hospital.

"The arrests did not come as a surprise, but it was shocking to find out that they detained a woman. Al-Horani marks one of the first times the Syrian authorities have detained a woman from civil society," said Al-Abdallah.

If Damascus continues in this fashion, it will runs the risk that 2008 will be better remembered for its clampdowns on the opposition than for the spectrum of cultural and art events the city is putting on throughout the year.

Spring turns to winter

The arrests of December 2007 have been referred to by analysts and activists as the third wave of crackdowns since the 'Damascus spring' of 2001, a time of intense socio-political debate following Bashar al-Assad's succession of his father as president.

The period witnessed the emergence of numerous Muntadat, or forums, where various like-minded political groups, such as the Riad Seif Forum and the Jamal al-Atassi National Dialogue Forum, met at private residences and discussed political and social issues.

Eventually all the forums were closed down by the Syrian authorities although the Atassi forum was able to stick around longer than the other 'salons'. It was finally closed after one of its members read a statement from the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, the concept of 'Damascus spring' seems to have become more like 'Damascus winter' in the minds of many Syrian activists.

"The margin of manoeuvring for activists in Syria has been shrinking over the past couple of years. The recent arrests just show how little space there is," Nadim Houry, researcher at the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) told MENASSAT.

Houry argues that it was the aim of the Damascus Declaration to bring people of different colors of the Syrian opposition together which ticked off the authorities.

"The Syrian government has always sought to divide and conquer with the country's political opposition. They try to keep the groups separated from one another. When the whole opposition gathers, the regime obviously views it as a threat. Every time this kind of attempt has been made the regime has been harsh."

From Beirut to Damascus

A similar incident took place in 2006 when efforts were made to link up Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals in the so-called "Beirut-Damascus Declaration / Damascus-Beirut Declaration," a statement that called for the improvement of Syrian-Lebanese relations. The petition attracted several hundred signatories as well as numerous prison sentences for the movement's high-ranking members in Syria.

Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni was sentenced to five years in prison for "spreading false or exaggerated news that weaken the spirit of the nation" shortly after he signed the declaration and writer Michel Kilo was handed a three-year sentence in May 2007.

Houry emphasized that the arrests are only "the tip of the iceberg" in a larger and severely restricted civil society environment in Syria.

Syrian NGOs and human rights groups are consistently denied registration under arbitrary legal clauses. Activists and opposition players are subject to continuous monitoring and harassment from the authorities. Many are banned from traveling. Seventeen members of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration were allegedly fired from their jobs after signing the petition.

"None of Syria's existing NGOs are registered legally which makes them easy targets for the national authorities," Houry said. "If they want to silence a group, they can always accuse them of 'membership of an illegal organization.'"

But repressive laws are only half the story.

According to Houry, "Even where there are restrictive laws in place, state security does not pay respect to them. They operate outside the law. They are the law."

When Ammar Abdulhamid was still in his home country, he says, he was under the constant radar of the Syrian state security.

"I was interrogated by the various security services for a period of a couple of months. It's like a vicious circle. When the military security had called me up, the political security would contact me shortly thereafter and ask why I was interrogated by the military secret service and so on. The questions and the daily harassment -– nobody reports on that," Abdulhamid told MENASSAT.

Internet activists have also fallen prey to the Syrian security services in recent times. Several bloggers were detained last year, including 29-year old Karim Arbaji, moderator of the online socio-political forum, who was arrested in early June 2007. Blogger Tariq Biasi was taken into custody shortly thereafter because he went online and allegedly "insulted security services."

Syrian blogger Ahed Al-Hendi says he was detained in December 2006 for posting comments on an opposition website from a Damascus Internet café, an incident supposedly filmed by the café owner who reported the matter to state security. Al-Hendi spent time in detention and then left the country.


In December 2007, Syrian authorities blocked access to more than a hundred websites, including email provider Hotmail, the blog platform blogspot, the leading video-sharing site YouTube, as well as MENASSAT.

"Damascus is supposed to be the Arab cultural capital 2008. But I think it would be more appropriate to name the jails of Damascus the Arab cultural capital at this point because that's where our cultural players are located," Al-Abdallah pointed out.

Several members of the international community, including the European Union, have condemned the recent arrests.

Ammar Abdulhamid calls for more international condemnation – even if he is skeptical about its impact on the Syrian regime.

"They will disregard all international appeals. Syria's internal behavior should be a major concern on the international level, not only the country's international behavior."

Last week's digest of cultural events in Syria included a performance of the renowned theater play Carmen in Damascus. Chances are, however, that Carmen's familiar chant of "freedom above all else" rang a bit hollow in the Syrian capital.