A. “Transparency Rests Firmly Upon Modernization which is Liberalization and Transparency Itself,” Al-Thawra, January 20, 2001.
Our [discussion] has continued of late on the seriousness of transparency and the legality of asking for it. Actually, the necessity of having [transparency]. It is no longer an issue of simply a public propaganda statement placed in front of Arab authorities with the aim of isolating it and removing from it. But [transparency] has shifted to assumptions and transformed into a reality that can be touched. And in its uncertain beginning, it moves one step forward and two steps back, the opposite sometimes.
Thanks are due to perestroika and Gorbachev. For the man has good qualities that most people now deny. And this gratitude is the courage to oppose, even though there was 70 years of a certain system of thinking and governing. And of it was the attempt to change while identifying the losses. And from it they gave us the example of the experiment when it becomes impossible to continue with the old system…
…Firstly, true stability, such that the basic procedures in the nation do not face sudden, great, and stormy changes. And so that the citizens are aware of the consequences of their actions beforehand. There should be clear rules that the government applies in an orderly manner. In countries without stability, people don’t know what to expect from the government. This is the stability that political sociologists study, not the kind that is prescribed by laws
Secondly, accountability, for there are leaders who serve themselves prior to the citizens, or a small marginal interest groups. For accountability is a part of the practice of democracy, related to free elections, which are how the elected leaders are accounted for. And the people that account for them are the citizens by way of their representatives. Just like the representatives are accounted for when they are elected based on their programs and their loyalty in representing.
And thirdly, representation, which means that the representatives of the people really do [serve their interests.] To achieve this, there must be free and fair elections, where there is real opportunity for success, with an independent body overseeing the elections so that nobody has an unfair advantage. The degree of success of representation and democracy is the measure of the word of the present representative as opposed to the absent representative.
And fourthly, separation of powers…These kinds of governments held in their hands, the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative branches together. And if the government left them independent on appearance or in certain cases, it could not do so when the case is attached to the government continuing in power, or its main and direct objectives.
And fifthly, liberalization and transparency. This is not limited to issues of government and governance. Whatever the situation is in a constitutional state, the government is always accountable to the people and their representatives. So the government cannot conceal its actions with bureaucracy, or with national security forces, or with economic policies, or monetary policies. The government should not hide from the people its source of revenue, nor its plans and its programs, or the outcome of its actions, or the position of the country and its apparatus…
…Transparency is a matter of constitutionalism, which is the essence of modern legality…Progress must be achieved honestly. The path is long, but we must shorten it. The road to transparency is difficult, but we must make it easier. It comes in steps but cannot be slow. In his first speech to the Syrian People’s Assembly, President Bashar Assad guaranteed an honest government based on transparency.
B. Excerpts from an interview conducted by Syrian journalist Muhammad Ali Atassi with Syrian poet Faraj Bayraqdar. The interview was published in the weekly cultural supplement of Beirut’s Al-Nahar in 2001. Bayraqdar was released from prison in 2000. (Courtesy of PEN International)
Q: Did you fear that jail would control your poetry by trapping it in a form of directness and making it lose some of its aesthetic and literary value?
F.B.: Poetry is democratic for both its writer and reader. It never compromised my feelings but rather gave me a space for a surprising and vast freedom. Poetry allowed me to control my prison, not the other way around. I tried to be careful, to avoid falling into being overly direct. I think what protected me was that I avoided writing about big political struggles while in jail. What remained was my longing for my daughter, my mother, for the village where I grew up. These are the themes, which imprisonment arouses, they are far from direct or obvious, and they never lose their allure. There were two words, though, that I never feared to use: captivity and freedom. They contain a charge that never withers. I can also say that I never wrote about my pain, but about the pain of people around me. The tragedy of prison doesn’t only impinge on the prisoner, but on life outside jail: many families of prisoners were destroyed, by divorces, poverty, and misery.
Q: What helped you to resist your imprisonment? Was it your ideological convictions or was there also a human, personal dimension to it?
F.B.: I think I owe my resistance to a variety of concepts. Love is one of them. Poetry. Despair also, but not in the sense of suicide or surrender.
Sadness was also present. There was also an ethical dimension. I was raised to be unbreakable; there was no choice but to resist.
Q: Can you tell us what was the most painful torture method?
F.B.: What mattered was to bear the pain until I fainted. What comforted me was that I didn’t tell them anything. After I passed out, it became impossible to take anything from me. They studied carefully what was the limit, the edge between life and death, and they would stop slightly before it. For me, what they call the “German chair” and what I call the “Nazi chair” was the most painful, especially its later consequences, like pains in the back and a temporary loss of movement in the arms that lasted for months. I was once subjected to it for two whole hours. (The German chair is made of metal, the prisoner is tied to it, then the chair is folded backwards, so that it pressurizes the back of the prisoner, arched to its maximum.) When the prisoner is put on that chair, the world life and death becomes half an exhalation and half an inhalation, any full breath can kill him. He has to calibrate his breathing on the edge of pain between two half-breaths. His life is placed on that line.
Q: How did you return to poetry?
F.B.: Poetry came by itself, as a defense mechanism. I thought of ways to write without a pen and paper. So I said to myself “I’ll try to pass the time by composing small paragraphs that I can remember…
I wasn’t alive
And I wasn’t dead
So I made my way for him
Oh, how the narrowness of this place
Q: How long did it stay in your mind?
F.B.: My memory became trained, even if this mechanism didn’t allow for long poems. In Tadmor too there are no pens or papers allowed, but I trained my memory even more and I counted on a few comrades to memorize some passages. The first time I wrote “Vision” I was in Tadmor: they had given me a pen to write down the names of some medicines we used. So I took my chance and wrote down the poems on cigarette papers. But I quickly destroyed them again, as we were thoroughly searched. Then we got more experienced and less fearful and we invented an ink from tea and onion leaves, and we used a wood splinter we found in the yard as a pen.
Q: Did you hate your torturer? Haven’t you ever wondered where the human being inside him was?
F.B.: Sometimes during the periods of torture I used to sympathize with some of the torturers. It was obvious to me they were doing a job imposed on them. As soon as the officer went out of the room, they would whisper something in your ear or go easy on the beating. At the end of the day, though, they are part of my people and they are destroying my people. They destroy the prison, they destroy the torturer, and they even destroy the citizen outside the prison. Today, after my release, I find I can forgive all the torturers who were simple soldiers, but I despise some of the officers and I’m not willing to ever deal with them again.
[…] We wanted in this interview conducted with the journalist and human rights activist, who just came from the underworld to the world of freedom, to avoid talking about the controversial issues that made the papers, like the people who recently kidnapped him lately, connections between this incident with the ongoing power struggle between the different intelligence agencies, and Nayyouf’s statements about the Israeli pilot Ron Arad. We wanted to return to the basics: a journalist imprisoned for his convictions, savagely tortured to the point that he loses the ability to walk while his broken body holds the scars of nine years in Syrian jails.
Nizar Nayyouf is one of thousands of Syrian political prisoners who have been released or are waiting for their release. […] This is a genuine and sincere call for Syria to close that terrible jail. A call for Syria to make peace with its soul. In this interview, Nayyouf says what he hasn’t said before.
M.A.A.: Can you tell us briefly about your studies and work before you were put in jail?
N.N.: I got my secondary degree in Hama in 1980, and then I moved to Beirut to continue my university studies. There I entered the American University of Beirut (studying economics). After the Israeli invasion I moved back to Damascus where I graduated. After graduation I worked in the Central Information Committee of the Democratic Front
for the Liberation of Palestine. I worked there until I was arrested.
M.A.A.: Why did you go to Beirut to study, and what are your recollections of that period?
N.N.: The reason was my uncle’s presence in Beirut. He was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and an officer who had deserted from the Syrian army. He was one of the people who were ordered to bomb Tel el-Zaatar camp [a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, besieged by Syrian-supported Christian militants in 1976–Tr]. He refused to carry out his orders because he belonged to the Syrian Communist Party… In 1980 he was killed in south Lebanon and buried in Beirut because Syrian authorities declined to let us move his body to Syria. After 19 days the body was moved to Syria upon the personal request of George Habash.
During the [Israeli army] siege I stayed in Beirut and worked for the Palestinian Agency (WAFA). I will never forget the resistance displayed by this city. It was a mythic event that proved what we always refused to believe: the capacity of ordinary people to stand ground and resist…
M.A.A.: Did your political stand against the regime derive from the beginnings of your political consciousness?
N.N.: Certainly. From the start, you see, I was never a member of the Baath Youth organization or the party itself.
M.A.A.: Don’t you think that some people find it hard to understand how one can be born in the Alawite confession and be a political dissident at the same time? [The Alawites are a sect within Shia Islam. In Syria, the minority Alawite community has been disproportionately represented in the regime ever since the Baath Party seized power in 1963–Ed.]
N.N.: In my years of working I noticed that in some conventional Sunni circles there is a misunderstanding of the real economic and social state of the Alawite community. They had some preconceived ideas that shocked me. For instance, they believed that every Alawite benefited from the existing regime… What is remarkable is that if we look at the political prisoners, a large number of them are Alawites, that is if we don’t count the [Muslim Brotherhood], who are Sunnis…
M.A.A.: Did you ever go to jail before your nine years’ sentence?
N.N.: Yes, three times: the first time in the late 1970s, for belonging to the Communist Party…I stayed in prison for six months. The second time was because I wrote a poem against the regime. The third time was in 1988, because I was engaged to a Jewish girl from Damascus. Her name was Sarah Shalouh, and they didn’t want me to marry her. But I refused all pressures because this was a personal matter and no one else had the right to interfere. Plus, that girl was an Arab Jew and strongly opposed to Zionism, and her family never migrated to Israel or the USA… I was released after a month, and I kept on seeing her, but we didn’t get married because Sarah insisted on us leaving for Germany and staying there, and I wanted to stay in the country…Our marriage, had it happened, would have been a chance to break the confessional barrier.
M.A.A.: What do you mean?
N.N.: Sarah is an Arab Damascene Jewish girl opposed to Zionism. My marriage [to] her would have meant transgressing a psychological barrier in people’s heads. These taboos are meaningless. Sarah is no different from any other Damascene. I still think of her today, she was unique […]. I tried to get her to join the Communist Party…but there was some sort of hysteria and they couldn’t fathom a relationship like that. As for my family, there was no problem. There’s a kind of openness there…the proof is that I later married a Christian girl. We have a daughter named Sarah. As for my brothers, all their relationships were within the Sunni milieu…
M.A.A.: Tell us about the stages of your incarceration, the ways used to torture you, and how you became paralyzed?
N.N.: I spent 2 days in the local prison at first, where I was subjected to the German Chair for the first time. [The German Chair is a metallic chair on which the prisoner is placed. The chair is then folded backwards causing spinal fractures and permanent or temporary paralysis of the limbs–Ed.]. I was then moved to the hospital and then to Palestine Branch…which is under the control of military intelligence. I stayed there for 15 days.
The days at Palestine Branch were the worst days, and the ones when I was most brutally tortured. They used the German Chair, in addition to electrocution, burning with cigarettes, and whipping with steel cables. Then I was moved to the Military Investigation Branch…where I was kept for a month under torture. From there I was moved along with my comrades to a military court where I was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison for forming and heading an illegal organization.
This trial reminded me of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. I told the judge: “I will resist whatever sentence this dictatorial regime may impose, even when I’m in prison.”
On February 19, 1992, I was moved to Saydnaya prison near Damascus, and I stayed there for a year. That was my introduction to prison life. I met many political prisoners, both left wing and right wing, and prisoners from different areas and religions. On February 6, 1993, I was moved to Tadmor prison as punishment for my ongoing activities, in particular because I had made lists of all the prisoners’ names and had tried to communicate with those prisoners who were moved from Tadmor to Saydnaya. When I realized I was in Tadmor I had this horrible fear, because I already knew about what goes on there…The investigation started again, and they wanted to know what kind of information I had smuggled. I was placed in an isolation cell, the same cell where Imad Abou Fakhr, a Communist party cadre, was killed. I found his memoirs
carved on the cell’s walls.
The torture in Tadmor was what broke me, and it is because of it that I’m now paralyzed. In Tadmor they beat with 3 sorts of hollow steel tubes (3/4 inch in diameter): the first one is plain, the second one has nails on it, like a comb, and the third is plated with a steel spiral. The toughest body in the world can only bear one strike from these tubes. I was beaten with the plain one, and I had a fractured jaw and a broken skull, and I lost all my upper teeth. The torture continued until March 5, 1993. Every day I was hung upside down for three hours…I was also subjected to psychological torture. They put a picture of the late president Hafez al-Assad in front of me, and I was asked to kneel in front of it and repeat a long sentence that ended with “…and I hope that you forgive all the sins I committed.”
I refused to do so, in spite of the beating. I stayed in Tadmor until June 27, 1993, when I was moved to the military investigation branch. I stayed there for 40 days. On August 7, 1993, I was transferred to Mazzeh prison. They kept me in an isolation cell until September 13, 2000. I was later transferred back to Saydnaya prison, where I stayed in isolation until my release on May 5, 2001.
M.A.A.: What is the thing that shocked you most in Tadmor? Did you cry while you were there?
N.N.: I was shocked by the methods of killing and torture. For instance, dropping concrete blocks on prisoners from a height of six meters while they were on their way to the courtyard. The prisoner often dies, with his skull broken like grenadine opened from its top. This kind of killing is called “the Stones of Ababeel.” There’s also what they call the “Baptism,” where they pee on the prisoners from an opening in the ceiling of the dormitory. I cried once, when I was alone, because I felt that I was going to die without seeing my daughter Sarah…
M.A.A.: While you were in jail you received many awards, such as the UNESCO prize for press freedom in 2000. How did that affect you?
N.N.: These prizes meant that I was not forgotten, and they gave me immunity in my struggle against the authorities. They also gave me a tremendous moral boost.
M.A.A.: What are your projects for now?
N.N.: The first thing I want to do is to go abroad for medical treatment. Then I want to return to Syria and found an organization that will be dedicated to uncovering all the [human rights abuses] committed during the past 30 years.
M.A.A.: Some people consider you to be arrogant, what do you think of that?
N.N.: That is possible and it’s their right to think as they please. But there are those who accuse me of arrogance because they can’t do what I did. Even if I was arrogant, and I don’t think I am, I have a right to be after everything that I went through…
M.A.A.: You say that the authorities are insane, but don’t you feel that your struggle with them is also insane?
N.N.: In my opinion, every struggle has a degree of insanity in it. Reason is not always right…
M.A.A.: Aren’t you afraid…of becoming a star?
N.N.: Not at all. After all, it’s not my fault that I’m under all these lights. I don’t go to them, they come to me…There is nothing that can rob me of my humanity, the thing that compels me to live a simple life…
M.A.A.: What is the first thing you’ll do when you get to Paris?
N.N.: The first thing is to get the treatment, and then I will see the Syrians who are exiled there, such as Youssef Abdilki. They wish to smell their country but are forbidden to do so. I want to ask them to come back en masse to Damascus, and let the regime arrest them if it can. This is their country and no one has the right to take it away from them.
M.A.A.: What is your dream today, and what do you expect of people?
N.N.: My dream is to get rid of the dictatorial regime in Syria. All I ask of people is to stop being passive and react to what we have to say.
D. “Syria cannot remain kingdom of silence,” Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), July 26, 2000. By Riad al-Turk, former head of the illegal Syrian Communist PartyPolitical Bureau, who was freed in 1998 after 17 years in prison. (Trans. BBC Monitoring Service)
… Recently, in Syria the constitution was amended in half an hour. People participated individually and en masse in processions of support and veneration. The Syrian People’s Assembly nominated the president’s son for the presidency. The parties of the “National Progressive Front” [NPF], the chambers of trade and industry, the trade unions, the professional organizations, and some intellectuals blessed this nomination. In a referendum the new president won 97.29 per cent of the votes, whichalthough not reaching 99 per centremains a famous and favored percentage, which the media of short-lived totalitarian regimes like to reiterate. In Syria today fear continues to regulate the people’s relationship with the authority and with each other…
In Syria today fear continues to reign supreme. Fear continues to generate rites of obedience and submission. Those who supervise and participate in them know that these rites are false and fake… Syria’s modern history did not begin with the era of President Hafez al-Assad and did not end with his death. But those who control the reins of power–out of concern for their interests and privileges–are squandering one of the most important achievements of the Syrian people. The republican regime was never the property of one person. It was the fruit of a long struggle in which our people paid a high price…
Our people are entitled to struggle to uphold republican principles. They are entitled to enjoy a real democratic life instead of the “democracy” of raising hands, voting unanimously, and vowing allegiance…
The banned opposition parties have lost their political and social effectiveness because of the policy of dismissal, repression, and prosecution. They no longer have an effect on life in the country…
Our problem is not with Dr. Bashar al-Assad, who did not occupy any official post before he was nominated and elected president. He practiced his job as an eye doctor. He engaged in social and cultural activities and hobbies like any young man. The problem lies in his assumption of the presidency through inheritance. It is a serious precedent that might be repeated with his brothers and sons, let alone the risk that this disease might spread to similar Arab regimes…
We in Syria are experiencing deep and endemic crises that have accumulated over the past 30 years and which are recognized by everyone, including the authority. These crises have touched various aspects of our life and have violently shaken our society, threatening its national cohesion. These crises are essentially the crisis of a regime that has led the country and people to this catastrophic situation. These crises can only be solved within the framework of political reform, which will be the guarantor of economic, administrative, and legal reform. If it is not a real political reform, it will remain a failed attempt to promote new faces in a regime whose stagnant institutions will continue to produce corruption and corrupt officials…
The desired political reform must be based on a national democratic multiparty system, which discards both the axiom “leader party” as well as the new axiom “leader of the march of the party and people.” This new axiom hides behind it a family rule consecrated by the son’s succession of his father [to the presidency]. The desired political reform must also be based on canceling the sentences of the extraordinary courts and abolishing the emergency law, which has been in force for 40 years. Everybody, including those in power, must respect the supremacy of the law and the independence of the judiciary. All political prisoners must be released, the exiles must return home, and the fate of missing persons must be disclosed.
Spreading democracy as a principle that regulates political and social life allows the solution of the contradictions within the society through peaceful means. It also allows the peaceful alternation of power…
The crisis of the regime cannot be solved without finding real solutions to the country’s crises. Administrative reform cannot be introduced suddenly but only gradually. However, it must be accompanied and be in unison with political reform–if the new authority has a sincere desire in this regard…
Every politician, trade unionist, intellectual, and writer–each according to his own symbolic capability and moral responsibility–must contribute to rescuing our people from the sea of lies and bringing them to the shore of truth. This can be done through various peaceful means, such as public struggle, signed statements, and individual and collective free opinion. It is clear and obvious that Syria cannot remain a kingdom of silence at a time when it has become impossible in today’s world to muzzle voices and suppress free speech…