Al-Bunni family presented with Irish human rights award

Praising his "extraordinary sacrifices," Irish President Mary McAleese on Thursday presented the annual Front Line award to the wife of jailed Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni. Al-Bunni is part of a remarkable family of human rights activists who together have spent more than 60 years in prison.
Anwar Al-Bunni. R.R.

DAMASCUS, May 22, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Irish President Mary McAleese presented Anwar Al-Bunni with the annual Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk during a ceremony at Dublin's City Hall last Thursday. The award was established in 2004 to highlight the work of outstanding individuals who put their lives at risk defending others.

"To be a champion of human rights is often to be very alone. That is why international support, encouragement and recognition of those who serve the cause of human rights are so essential,"  McAleese said.

Bunni, a human rights lawyer, was director of a civil society organization that was shut down by the authorities in March, a week after it began operations. The award was collected by Al-Bunni's wife as he lingered in jail.

"Ragheda Issa Refki, the courageous wife of that courageous lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni is here and to her we offer this award in the hope that somehow he and the world's brave human rights defenders will feel a renewed surge of energy and hope in this formal recognition to their work," McAleese said.

Issa herself was fired from her job at the Syrian ministry of Communications after 27 years of service in order to put pressure on her husband and to deprive the family of their income.

Bunni's story is a reminder of "the extraordinary sacrifices being borne today, in pursuit of the simple dignity and freedom of each human being," McAleese added.

Anwar Al-Bunni, 48,  is a Syrian lawyer who took it upon himself to defend human rights in Syria, in addition to his work as a political activist. He was an active member of the Human Rights Association in Syria, and he participated in the establishment of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research. He also contributed in researching and writing, publishing many studies of law, the media and the human rights situation in Syria.

The Syrian authorities arrested Benni in May 2006 along with nine other dissidents who had signed the Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut Declaration, which called for better relations between Lebanon and Syria. The Criminal Court in Damascus sentenced him in 24 June 2007 to five years in prison and a $2,000 fine, accusing him of "spreading lies to delude the people."

But Al-Bunni is only one member of a whole family of militants that has paid a heavy price for its activism. In a 2005 interview, Al-Bunni estimated that his various members of his family have spent over 60 years in Syrian prisons.

His brother Akram Al-Bunni, himself a well-know human rights defender, spent 16 years in prison being member of the Communist Party. He is now serving another prison sentence for attending the meeting of the National Committee for Damascus Declaration in late 2007. Among the other signatories who were arrested were Anwar's sister Sahar, her husband Mostapha Khalife, and his wife Rosette Issa.

Youssef Benni, Anwar's eldest brother, was the first to be arrested in 1977, followed by Akram and the youngest brother, Ibrahim, and their sister Sahar in 1978. Youssef stayed in prison for 15 years and Sahar six years, while Ibrahim got away with two years. 

Fayez Sara, who was arrested along with Akram after the Damascus Declaration meeting, said that only one brother of the Al-Bunni family had never been arrested, Kamal who is studying abroad.

In a 2005 interview, Al-Bunni estimated that his various members of his family have spent over 60 years in Syrian prisons.