Arab Commission for Human Rights (ACHR)

Commission Arabe des Droits humains

&

Arab Program for Human Rights Activists (APHRA)

Programme arabe des defenseurs des droits humains

 

 

Orders, Instructions, Reporting

 

 

Trial observer report

 Cases of People's Assembly members

Mohammed Mamoun Al‑Homsi and Riad Saif

Damascus

 

By: Ahmed Fawzi, lawyer (Egypt)

Report commissioned by ACHR and APHRA

 

 

 

 


Orders, instructions, reporting

 

These are the three words that govern the way ruling institutions operate in our Arab world. With the use of these three words, other vocabulary such as constitution, law, democracy and human rights disappear from the Arabic language dictionary. Despotism and oppression have become the unifying symbols for Arab regimes. When the Arab Programme embarked on a mission to bring down the fence that surrounds our beloved Syria, it had in mind the past four decades of orders, instructions and reporting against all those who dared to use alien terms like democracy and human rights or had the courage to express a view different to that of the Syrian regime. And with the introduction of reforms and the openness measures under Dr Bashar Al‑Assad, the President of the Republic, civil society organisations and human rights activists carried the torch of reviving the principles of democracy and human rights. When an announcement was made for an ordinary public trial of two prisoners of conscious, Assembly members Mohammed Mamoun Al‑Homsi and Riad Saif, the Arab Programme and the Arab Commission stepped in to become the first bodies to monitor the case and the first visitors to Syria and consult with local human rights organisations, which are facing grave problems and obstacles in their work, the majority of which are imposed by the pig‑headed old guard of the Syrian security apparatus. The oppressive and humiliating practices of the security organisations pose grave dangers human rights activists and constitute potential threats to their lives and their well being, a situation compounded by the lack of experience in that field. The visit was initiated by reports from Syria on the arrest of 10 distinguished civil society individuals some of whom are founding members of the "Committee for the Revival of Civil Society", Jamal Al‑Attsi Forum for Democratic Dialogue, and the Forum for Democratic Dialogue, the Human Rights Society and the Alliance for National Democracy. The arrests were based on their political and human rights activities. The Programme issued a number of statements and launched a campaign urging Arab and international human rights organisations to exert efforts to ensure the release of the 10 detainees. But like all Arab regimes the Syrian authorities ignored these calls. The Program also requested a meeting with the Syrian ambassador to Egypt where the Program is based, to enquire about the conditions of the detainees, but was ignored by his Excellency the ambassador on several occasions. The Program, however, was surprised to receive permission from the Syrian authorities to attend the trial of two to of the detainees. In coordination with the Arab Commission for Human Rights the Program prepared for attending the trail although our representative expected harassment at the hands of the Syrian authorities. The representative was mandated to represent the ACHR and the APHRA in coordination with the IPU and the Special Working group on Arbitrary Detention of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva (ACHR had asked the Working group of UN to intervene through an Urgent Action request two months earlier) at the trial as an observer and to seek access to the detainees and their families, and to meet Syrian officials. For these reasons the representative did not divulge his identity upon entering Syrian territory. He informed the authorities that he was on a private visit, and nationals of Arab countries do not have any difficulties in entering Syria, which in itself is a positive sign. It is also worth noting that the representative of the program did not encounter the harassment foreseen while working with the Syrian authorities despite the nature of his mission. This was a positive sign as how the authorities intend to deal with human rights organisations.

 

Upon my arrival in Syria, a member of the Human Rights Association in Syria(HRAS), who was of great help to me, met me. I was taken to my accommodation and enjoyed a night of deep sleep despite my knowledge of Syria's record of dealing with human rights activists.

 

The following day, I met with Mr Haytham Al‑Maleh, President of the Syrian Human Rights Society and the Committee for the Defence of Detainees in Syria, Lawyers Anwar Al-Bouni and Khalil M'atouq, two of the most active Syrian defenders of human rights, as well as the families of the detainees who briefed me on the background of the detention, their conditions and treatment, and the visits system.

 

The detainees are:

 

First‑ Mohammed Mamoun Al‑Homsi, member of the People's Assembly, arrested on 9 August 2001. I was able to obtain the following information from his next of kin: Mr Al‑Homsi, over a period of 15 years, combined between serving the masses and representing citizens in local councils and parliament as an independent candidate. During that period he raised a number of issues touching upon the daily life of the working classes and small traders burdened by taxes. He was the first to call for the setting up of an independent human rights committee within the People's Assembly, turning prisons into vocational training centres and putting an end to intervention in the political life in Syria. He also called for a public and televised debate of the state budget, which amounted to 600bn Syrian Liras. Mr Al‑Homsi is also renowned for confronting ministers known for corruption, which led him to facing harassment at the hands of security agencies. He was, through threats and sometimes persuasion, to refrain from raising these issues at the Assembly. Mr AlHomsi was the subject of harassment by the tax administration regarding his commercial activities as an authorised agent of Sam Yung, A Korean car company, and had previously owned a furniture show room. Before his Arrest Mr Al‑Homsi had made these 10 demands:

 

1‑      Respect for the sanctity of the Constitution, limiting emergency laws and the abolition of martial law.

2‑      Respect for the rule of law and strengthening the judiciary through reforms and independence.

3‑      Putting an end to the work of the Committee for Inspection and Oversight, which has become a source of terror for citizens.

4‑      Putting an end to government imposition of taxes and increasing prices.

5‑      Combating corruption and waste of public resources in all forms.

6‑      Putting an end to the exploitation of national wealth by some officials and their offspring and a more equitable distribution of this wealth.

7‑      The cancellation of the mobile phones license contract, which was awarded to a group of ineligible individuals contrary to the Constitution.

8‑      Putting an end to the continued intervention of security agencies in the daily life and to confine their work to national security matters.

9‑      Setting up a parliamentary human rights committee.

10‑    Allowing the People's Assembly and its members a greater role without infringement of their rights.

 

Mr Al‑Homsi then went on a hunger strike in his parliamentary office in Al‑Azbakia. At 8 am on 9 August 2001, a convoy of 10 vehicles containing 60 to 70 security agents arrested him and took him to the Palace of Justice without seeking the permission of the Speaker of the People's Assembly in contravention of Articles 66 and 67 of the Syrian Constitution according to which only a proven crime can lead to the lifting of parliamentary immunity.

 

The pretext provided was that the Minister of the Interior and the Speaker of the Assembly had authorised the arrest and the interrogation. Mr Al‑Homsi was afterwards transferred to Adra prison and his family was allowed a 30‑minte visit one week after his arrest. He was not allowed food, books, newspapers or a radio set brought by the family, which led him to go on a visit strike for one month.

 

Despite being a diabetic and suffering from hypertension, Mr Al‑Homsi was denied proper medical attention and was held in solitary confinement and subjected to harsh treatment. To put him under more pressure and demoralise him, one of the security agents presented a memo according to which there was a link between a former Transport Minister arrested for corruption and a number of members of the Assembly including AlHomsi. The memo alleges that the members had given the minister bribes. The investigation of allegations in the memo was closed for lack of sufficient evidence.

 

Members of the Assembly were prevented from debating the details of the arrest of both Mamoun Al‑homsi and Riad Saif. Instead the Assembly issued a desultory statement saying that their parliamentary was lifted upon the request of the Attorney General and that the request was granted and the session was immediately adjourned.

 

In a side discussion between the Speaker and a number of Assembly members he told them that Al‑Homsi should present an apology for his statement. Al‑Homsi refused and was put to a trial the details of which will be dealt with later in this report.

 

It is worth noting that the arrest of Mr Al‑Homsi was in violation of Articles 66 and 67 of the Syrian Constitution stipulating that members of the People's Assembly shall enjoy immunity in conducting their parliamentary duties and that they shall not be answerable for their actions. Nor shall they be subject to harassment, surveillance, confiscation of their property or taken to a court of law unless they have committed a proven crime. This means a criminal act corroborated by material evidence. Only then the permission of the Speaker to lift a member's immunity shall be sought. That was not the case with Mr AlHomsi.

 

Moreover, the arrest is in contravention of international instruments on human rights and in particular Articles 3, 5, 9, 10 and 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. They affirm the right of individuals to life, liberty and security of person; that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment; that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; that everyone is entitled to in full equality to a fair trial and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him. This is not the case in Al‑Homsi's situation.

 

Second‑ Mr Riad Al‑Turk: I was not able to meet any of Mr Al‑Turk's relatives to gain any information about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance. However, from the information provided by the Syrian Human Rights Association in Syria and the Arab Commission for Human Rights, and my personal knowledge of the nationalist struggle of Mr Al‑Turk one can shed light on his background. He is the Secretary‑General of the Syrian Communist Party and one of the leaders of the opposition National Democratic Assembly . He was arrested in 1980 and stayed in prison until 1998 for his views on democracy, human rights, corruption and bad governance in state institutions. Mr Al‑Turk was released from prison by a presidential amnesty after which he refused to be involved in public life because of his outspoken views. At the time it was said that his years in prison has left cut off from the rest of the world. But six months after his release he started to criticize the slow process of political reform in Syria and called for looking into the cases of political prisoners the number of which, to the day of writing this report, was close to 1,000 in prison and 3,000 disappeared. He called for closing the case of critical medical conditions before launching a scathing attack against the Syrian regime in the wake of the arrest of Mamoun Al‑Homsi. He spoke at the Jamal Al‑Attasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue where he criticised the deteriorating conditions of the Syrian civil society and the snail‑pace of democratic change. This criticism led to new harassment at the hands of the old guard within the Syrian regime. The final blow came when he took part in a televised debate on Al‑Jazeera channel with a Syrian journalist and activist, Nezar Nayouf, where he spoke about ongoing corruption among officials relatives, sectarian intolerance, Security practices, the disposal of nuclear waste on Syrian territory in suspect deals by senior officials and labelling the late President Hafez Al‑Assad a dictator. He was arrested while visiting a doctor's clinic in Tartous on 1 September 2001 and was taken ‑to Adra prison without investigation or interrogation. He was kept in solitary confinement but was moved later to a 4x4-meter cell with three other detainees. His wife was allowed to visit him on 13 November 2001 and was allowed a radio set and a television. Security authorities circulated rumors about his release to coincide with the reform movement anniversary (16 November). To the day of writing this report there was no news of his release. Nor there is news of having a fair trial or interrogation in the presence of a lawyer. His lawyer, however, Khalil Ma'touq was able to se him and described his health condition and his morale as good and that he was well treated.

 

The arrest of Mr Al‑Turk, 70, is against the provisions of the Syrian Constitution and law, and runs contrary to the International Bill of Human Rights and its Article 5 that no one shall be subjected to torture, to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, Article 9 that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, Article 11/1 that everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence as well as Article 19 where everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression and that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek , receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

 

It is worth noting in this case that leftist, socialist and democratic movements showed little enthusiasm in partaking in any campaign to help in the release of Mr Al‑Turk let alone undertaking the task themselves despite the detainee being a well known socialist worldwide.

 

Third‑ Dr Arif Dalila, born 1943 and was arrested on 9 September 2001 at 13:00 hours. He is one of the founding members of the Committee on Reviving Civil Society and married to a Russian national who was outside the country at the time of his arrest. She was informed by the neighbours. Reliable information obtained show that Mr Dalila received a phone call from Mr Habib Issa, a lawyer, at 10 am to discuss the details of the arrest of Mr Riad Saif and the effectiveness of the Forum for National Dialogue.

 

The detainee was the dean of the faculty of Economics and Political Science but was fired from the post in 1997 without being given a reason. Certain circles, however, attributed the decision to his membership of the board of the Syrian Society for Economic Sciences, which dealt with the issue of corruption in Syria, the need for freedom of expression to complement economic reform. He has also presented his candidature to become a member of the People's Assembly and had issued a statement containing 10 points criticising the festering political and economic corruption among the leadership of the ruling Syrian Ba'th Party. The statement was banned from publication by the authorities. He is one of the few civil society activists in Syria who had honour of meeting Dr Bashar Al‑Assad, the President of the Republic, who promised to reinstate Dr Dalila. But after meeting with the Prime Minister he was asked to make a request to return to his post, present an apology for views expressed and agree to the non‑inclusion of the period of incarceration for service purposes. He categorically refused to accept these conditions.

 

There were reports of putting him in solitary confinement. Following pressure from international civil society organisations and Arab human rights bodies he was allowed a visit by his family on 13 November 2001 and transferred to a cell with three other detainees after a series of refused requests. It is also reported that permission was granted to allow him a radio, a TV set and newspapers but these orders were not carried out and the detainee remains in prison until the time of writing this report.

 

Fourth‑ Dr Waleed Al-Bouni. Born 1964, ENT specialist. He was arrested at 10:05 pm on 9 September 2001 when he was led to believe that a patient was waiting outside only to discover that a posse of Syrian political security agents ready to arrest him. No charges were brought against him nor was he interrogated and he was transferred to Adra prison. When his wife tried to find his whereabouts but to no avail and tried to see the investigating judge at the court of state security but was refused the meeting. The detainee was refused food and a change of clothing. He was reported to be held in solitary confinement and was allowed a 30‑minute visit in the presence of the prison governor and a security agent. The visit was videotaped and the recording showed signs of paleness for lack of sunlight and fatigue. Further information indicate he was transferred to a cell with three other detainees. He was still in detention at the time when this report was prepared.

 

Fifth‑ Dr Kamal Al‑Labwani was arrested on 9 September at midnight. He was asked to come out to help a patient and was not fully dressed when he left the house. The caller and his car aroused the suspicions of his wife who contacted the local police station where she was told that he might have been wanted by a security agency. She was later contacted by the lawyer assigned by the state to defend him. The lawyer told her that her husband was in Adra prison and that he was in good health and asked her to bring him his personal effects. Her attempts to visit him failed despite repeated request to meet the investigating judge at the court of state security. There was information about holding him in solitary confinement until his wife visited him on 13 November 2001. The detainee had earlier told Abu Dhabi TV, in response to a question if he expected the arrests to continue in Syria, that Assembly member Riad Saif was arrested because he called for democracy and that it is the desire of the Syrian people to have democracy and that arrests would continue.

 

Sixth‑ Habeeb Salih, businessman who wanted to open a nightclub, arrested on 9 September 2001.

 

Seventh‑Hassan Sa'doun, retired Arabic language teacher from al‑Hasaka Province, arrested on 9 September 2001.

 

I was not able to meet with the wives or any relatives of the two above and was not able to obtain sufficient information on the circumstances of their arrest from their defence. It is likely that their relatives were afraid to meet me for fear of retribution by the Syrian authorities or because they lived outside the capital.

 

I have the following remarks to make about cases three to seven:

 

1‑      The Syrian News Agency SANA reported their arrest the following day on charges of violating the Constitution and laws, the setting up of associations in violation of the law. Tishreen newspaper published the same news item. It is the first time that the Syrian authorities acknowledge the arrest of political or human rights and civil society activists. This shows that satellite channels and the pressure brought to bear by international human rights organisations to unmask the repressive practices of the Syrian regime have forced its hand into such acknowledgment.

 

2‑      All the detainees are active members in civil society organisations and the Syrian Human Rights Society so their activities are in the public eye. They are all members of the Forum for National Dialogue; Waleed Al-Bouni and Arif Dalila are founding members of the Committee for the Revival of Civil Society; Hassan Sa'doun and Waleed Al-Bouni are members of the Syrian Human Rights Society; and Mr Habib Salih is a member of the Tartous Forum. All these organisations have a mission to spread political and human rights awareness, strengthen the role of civil society, and use democracy as a means of dealing with political and economic corruption in Syria. The background of their arrest points in one direction: their activities in the forums, statements made on satellite channels criticising the regime and the monopoly of the Ba'th Party. All these moves culminated in a gathering at the home of Riad Saif and attended by Burhan Ghalioun to discuss methods of increasing pressure on the Syrian regime to release political prisoners. That meeting caused the Syrian regime grave concerns.

 

3‑      None of the wives or members of family of the detainees were harassed or arrested, an indication of an improvement in the treatment of detainees' next of kin.

 

4‑      There was no part played by trade unions or professional organisations that the detainees were affiliated to, or opposition parties, in bringing the arrests to light or in condemning them. No attempt was made by such bodies to help the detainees or their families.

 

5‑      All the detainees were not interrogated in accordance with the law and were arrested and imprisoned in violation of the Syrian Constitution and laws, and all international human rights instruments. Special reference must be made to Article 5 of the universal Declaration of Human Rights that underscores that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, Article 9 that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile, Article 10 that everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair trial and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him, Article 11/1 that everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence while Article 20/1 guarantees that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

 

Eighth‑ Mr Habeeb Issa, 55, is a member of the Syrian Communist Party and the Syrian Human Rights Society and spokesperson of Jamal Al‑Attasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue. Before his arrest, he was subjected to harassment and security pursuits for his political activities and for being the lawyer representing Riad Al‑Turk, Arif Dalila and Waleed Al-Bouni. Mr Issa had told Al‑Jazeera TV and Radio Monte Carlo that the arrest of his clients was illegal and was critical of the executive branch and the judiciary. Consequently, three men carrying a machine gun and handguns with silencers raided his house at 4 am on 12 September 2001. His son opened the door but was prevented by one of the armed raiders from warning the father. The same armed person entered Mr Issa's bedroom, asked him for his ID and ordered him to get dressed. When Mr Issa asked to change in a different room he was told to stay in the same room. His wife confirmed that the three men did not search the house or his personal documents and papers. She tried to visit him in prison but was refused permission by the investigating judge on the grounds of ongoing investigations. She was finally allowed to see him on 13 November 2001 when families of detainees were allowed, for the first time, to take food and clothing into the detention centre. Newspapers, writing paper and pens and pencils, however, were not permitted. International news agencies and journalists were prevented from meeting the detainees' families. Mr Issa was kept in solitary confinement but was later moved to a 4x4 m cell to share with three other detainees. During the visit he looked tired and pale, a sign that he was not exposed to sunlight. The visit lasted 30 minutes, videotaped and took place in the presence of a warden and an agent from political security. He was expected to be released on the anniversary of the Reformist Movement Day but he remains in detention to the day of writing this report without being put on trial.

 

Ninth‑ Mr Fawaz Tello is an engineer and a marketing executive with Samsung. He is an active member of the Forum for Democratic Dialogue and the Human Rights Association in Syria. He was arrested on 12 September 2001 at 4 am. Security agents told the porter of the building to knock on his door and tell him he was wanted at the entrance. When Mr Tello went down he realized they were political security agents and asked them if they were there to arrest him. They said: "No. You are wanted at the Ministry of the Interior for one hour". When his wife asked to allow him his personal effects they refused and said to her that he would be back home before 6 am. It was a week later that she was contacted by the lawyer assigned to her husband by the state and told that he was in good health and that she could take him food and clothing. She was not allowed to see him despite repeated requests to the investigating judge who told her that she could not see him because of the ongoing investigation. There were reports that he was kept in solitary confinement but was removed to a 4x4 m cell with three other detainees 45 days after his arrest. His wife was allowed to visit him on 13 November 2001. Other reports indicate that he is still not allowed medication, a radio or a TV set. He is said to look pale and tired, a sign of lack of exposure to sunlight.

Observations on the cases of detainees eight and nine:

 

1‑      Unlike other detainees, no official statement was made about their arrest.

2‑      There was no attempt by the Syrian Bar Association, Engineering Union, the Medical Society or the Syrian Economists Association to seek the release of the detainees or to help their families. In Habeeb Issa's case, in particular, the Bar Association made no effort to provide assistance, which is extremely regrettable.

3‑      Their arrest, detention, treatment and health situation constitute a flagrant violation of the Syrian Constitution and law, and international human rights instruments namely Articles 5, 9, 10, 11/1 and 20/1 referred to in the cases of the other detainees.

 

Tenth‑Riad Saif was a garment trader and an agent for sport equipment manufacturer Adidas, and according his wife did not get involved in public life until 1994 when he became a member of the People's Assembly.

 

Riad had raised a number of issues relating to political and social corruption by a ruling few and the burdens borne by the toiling classes. He is believed to have crossed the thin red line in the Assembly when he asked for a debate on the commercial deals involving the sons of a number of senior officials. He is also believed the person who brought to light the question of mobile phones licensing. His interventions referred to contracts awarded by civil servants to individuals with close contacts to the ruling circles without due consideration to better offers. He also dealt with obstacles in the way of encouraging investment and the importance of the role of the private sector in reviving the economy. He also called for an end to the political, social, cultural and economic monopoly of the ruling Ba'th Party.

 

He is also a founding member and a spokesperson of the Forum for Democratic Dialogue. The Forum used to meet in his house and brought together various pro and anti Syrian regime political trends. The Forum had the objective of reviving the role of civil society and political life in Syria. That's why Mr Saif invited Professors Yousuf Salama and Burhan Ghalioun who are well known for their in‑depth analysis of the political and economic situation and the need to align the Syrian Constitution with international instruments on freedom of expression and other liberties.

 

When I enquired about the harassment he was subjected to, I was told the following:

1‑      The death of his 20‑year‑old son was shrouded in doubt. His death was attributed to drowning but no body was found. An accidental death was recorded.

2‑      There were rumors about his financial dealings and talk about receiving funds from foreign sources that were compounded by arbitrary imposition of taxes, which forced him to give up the Adidas concession despite his possession of a full tax settlement certificate up to 1999.

3‑         On 19 March 2001, having presented a white paper on social peace in which he called for a new era of social relations in a Syria free from the monopoly of the ruling Ba'th party of social, economic and political life and the creation of a national front comprising all political currents and to revive the role of civil society and the dissemination of democratic and freedom of expression principles and the need to discuss these issues in the Assembly, he was asked amicably by the Speaker to fold the Forum in view of security instructions received. Mr Saif refused and asked for this demand in writing. As a result, the Attorney General sought permission to interrogate the member of the Assembly and charged him with violating the Constitution, instigating sectarian divisions, founding clandestine organisations and holding unauthorized meetings in his house. The interrogation lasted two hours before he was released. The case remained open against him but no request to lift his immunity. Mr Saif, however, suspended the activities of the Forum.

4‑         On 5 September 2001, the member of the Assembly resumed the activities of the Forum with a lecture by Burhan Ghalioun. This incident led to the confrontation. At 6 pm on 6 September 2001, a police commander asked that Mr Saif be woken up from his siesta. Following a friendly conversation, the commander asked him to have a coffee at the office of the Minister of the Interior. His wife wanted to prepare a bag for him with his hypertension medicine but the officer told her there was no need and that her husband would be back in an hours time and that there was no need to worry. He was driven away in a Mercedes of Political security with an armed convoy and the house was surrounded by security agents. By 10 pm, his wife found out through SANA that he was arrested and charged with violating the Constitution and laws. The following day, his son was allowed to take him a pair of pyjamas and medicine but was not allowed to see him. His wife tried to see him on several occasions. On 16 September 2001, she and her daughter were allowed half an hour to see him in the presence of a security agent and a warden. She was allowed visits every Saturday but complained that items allowed in were not subject to the rules of the prison but to the mood of the officials. Mr Saif was not allowed a visit by his private doctor and was denied permission to have legal books because he wanted to prepare his own defence in court. Asked if she faced any harassment, his wife said that after the first visit she returned home to find security agents waiting for her to tell her they had information that she planned to organize a demonstration with the wives of other detainees in front of the Palace of Justice and asked her not to go ahead with the protest. They also asked her to refrain from holding meetings at the house, especially after the one on 8 September, two days after the arrest of Mr Saif. The meeting was attended by representatives of 14 societies and organisations after which they issued a joint statement calling for the release of all political prisoners. She was told that the statement led to the arrest of the others and that she would not have peace of mind herself.

 

Trial of Mamoun A1‑Homsi:

 

Before delving into the proceedings of the trial of Mamoun Al‑Homsi, which I attended as a representative of ACHR and APHRA, I thought it worthwhile reviewing the details of the previous hearings to help complete the puzzle that the defence tried to find the missing pieces for. The defence was prevented from attending the first hearings. Instead s lawyers known for their allegiance to the ruling Ba'th Party were assigned to defend the accused. When allowed to attend though, defence lawyers were barred from making statements in flagrant violation of the defendants' rights. It must be said that the defence and the Syrian Human Rights Society tried their best to defend the accused in the absence of the minimum of protection from Syrian civil society organisations, lack of information and support from international human rights bodies. If there is one lesson to be drawn from my visit, it is giving the Syrian dossier more attention and Syrian activists bigger support.

 

Two months after his arrest, Mr Al‑Homsi faced an administrative tribunal on 27 October 2001 to answer charges brought against him by the Damascus public prosecution office. He was charged with attempting to change the Constitution through illegal means, prevent public authorities from carrying out their duties as provided for in the Constitution, undermine national unity, disturb the peace, resist government agents in the line of duty and insulting the legislative, executive and judicial branches. The charges brought against him are in accordance with the following articles:

 

       291: attempting to change the Constitution through illegal means, punishable with a minimum of five years imprisonment and a maximum of a life sentence if acts of violence were resorted to.

 

       294: assault intended to prevent the authorities from carrying out their duties as provided for by the Constitution, punishable with preventive detention.

 

       307: any act, statement or speech aimed at or intended to foment sectarian and racial divisions, punishable with a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years imprisonment, a penalty of 100‑200 Syrian Liras and a ban from assuming public posts or seeking election for assembly and council membership in accordance with Article 65.

 

       370: any active or passive resistance leading to impeding government officials from applying the law as stipulated in Article 369, punishable with a minimum of one month and a maximum of six months imprisonment and a penalty of up to 100 Syrian Liras.

 

       376: defamation through slogans, writings or organized movements as described in Article 208, punishable with a minimum of one year and a maximum of three if directed against the President of the Republic or a maximum of one year if directed against a court of law, the executive, the army or a government official in the line of duty, and a penalty not exceeding 100 Syrian Liras.

 

All the above charges were brought by the office of the Deputy Military Governor, backed by a letter from the Speaker of the People's Assembly authorizing legal action against the Mr Al‑Homsi and the decision of the investigating judge to refer the case and documents to a court judge. The documents included all relevant papers and the interrogation report on how the member of the Assembly prevented state authorities from carrying out their constitutional duties, went on a hunger strike, issued a 10‑point statement in which he insulted the judiciary, legislative and executive branches, urged others to strike and called for a sit‑in if their requests were not met by the government. Other documents included a statement dated 7 August 2001 that was posted outside his office in the presence of the public, and a copy of the fax sent to the accused by Mr Haytham Manna (Spokesperson of ACHR) dated 8 August 2001 in which he expresses support for Mr Al‑Homsi in response to the fax sent by the accused to Mr Manna' thanking him for his sentiments. The interrogation report dated 9 August 2001 before a judge was also attached.

 

The defence team, which included Mr Haytham Al‑Maleh, Mr Anwar Al-Bouni, Mr Habeeb Issa, Mr Khalil Ma'touq, Ms Taima' Jaioush and Mr Baha'uddin Rakadh, contested the decision of the second Damascus court judge (ruling 604 dated 11 October 2001, Case 882/2001) before the Court of Cassation on the grounds that the appeal was made within the set period. They claimed that the substance of the ruling was not based on legal grounds nor on facts and has caused their client's reputation grave damage by accusing him of acts that fell under his parliamentary duties. The team also cast doubt on the legality of the arrest of their client, evidence given against him in affidavits and statements in newspapers and the articles of the penal code used to incriminate him. The court was asked to accept the appeal in form and substance, that he is released and awarded legal costs.

 

In the interrogation session of 27 October 2001, the accused denied all charges brought against him insisting that he was exercising the rights he is guaranteed, as a citizen and a member of the Assembly, by the Constitution.

 

The defence team was denied making a statement and access to evidence and a public trial for Mamoun Al‑Homsi was set for 30 October 2001 under case No. 1641/2001 where journalists and relatives were barred from attending while security agents denied lawyers access to the accused before the hearing despite the permission of the sitting judge. Later, however, journalists, relatives and representatives of European embassies were allowed in.

 

When the accused was asked if he was guilty of the charges brought against him he replied no and said that being brought here before this court was a violation of the Constitution by the security forces because he was exercising his parliamentary right by calling for amendments to the Constitution.

 

The defence contested the arrest on the grounds that the permission of the Speaker of the Assembly was not sought at the time in violation of Articles 66 and 67 of the Constitution and asked for access to the file of the case and a full copy of it. The court ignored the requests of the defence and adjourned the hearing until 13 November 2001 to hear the prosecution. At that moment in time, the accused took the floor to say that his presence in the dock was a medal of honour, that the presence of President Bashar Al‑Assad at the helm was a historic opportunity and that his arrest was an attempt to undermine progress under the new president.

 

As for the hearing that I attended personally, I arrived at the courthouse at 9:45 am where there was a big crowd, the families of the accused, the world press and the representatives of the embassies of Italy, France, Belgium, the United States, Norway and Japan. I was not harassed or searched as I entered the court and was able to meet the families, the press and the diplomats. They expressed satisfaction at our involvement, being the first human rights organisation to visit Syria, and exchanged views on the previous hearings.

 

I was at one point, however, provoked by on of the members of the prosecution team who was a member of the ruling party. When he found out that I represented a human rights organisation and an Egyptian national he asked me sardonically about the address of the "donkeys rights association" in Egypt, and I responded by saying: "the donkey is the one who keeps his mouth shut when his compatriots are oppressed". At 10:15 am, the courtyard in front of the deliberations room was cleared and a member of the defence team accompanied me to the room and introduced me as a lawyer from Egypt. I was not searched but I heard a security agent call me names, a gesture I ignored. Inside the room I saw three dignitaries present and discovered later they were members of the People's Assembly. Then, moves started to allow the press and the diplomatic corps that were frustrated for the search they had to go through.

 

I was surprised to see a vast number of files on the judge's rostrum and wondered to myself how could one judge deal with so many cases.

 

I did not see the car the accused was brought in but was aware of his arrival by the wailing sirens of police cars, a custom in Arab countries. Then, I heard shouts by the Supporters of Al‑Wahda Football Club, which is financed by the accused. They were shouting: "our souls and our blood, we sacrifice for Bashar".

 

As the accused entered the courtroom he shouted: "our souls and our blood, we sacrifice for Bashar. Long live freedom, long live Syria". Then he greeted his colleagues. Although signs of strain showed on his face, he seemed moved to see the press and members of diplomatic missions. When he was told I was the representative of human rights organisations and an Egyptian, he shook my hand warmly. He then was allowed to speak to his lawyer, Anwar Al-Bouni. I also heard more slogans being shouted from outside the courtroom and an argument between the security forces and the defence team over letting the public into the courtroom ensued. As a result a member of the defence team, Khalil Ma'touq was assaulted before the judge managed to bring order into the proceedings.

 

The defence team, comprising Haytham Al‑Maleh and Anwar Al-Bouni and Khalil Ma'touq and Bahuddin Rakadh, prepared to proceed, the judge asked the prosecution to present the case but was objected to by Mr Al‑Maleh who insisted on completing the opening formalities before going into substantive matters. He asked the judge for a full documentation of the case papers but was overruled on the grounds that all papers relating to the case was made available to a member of the defence team and turned towards Lawyer Abdulrahman Al‑Issa who pointed out to the judge that he was acting on behalf of Riad Saif and not Mamoun Al‑Homsi. The defence then requested once again a copy of the full documentation of the case, including the interrogation report and the arrest warrant but the request was ignored by the judge. The defence, once more, asked for the accused to be re‑interrogated on the grounds that a copy of his first interrogation report was not made available, which rendered the first interrogation null and void. But once again the judge refused saying that the interrogation did take place and that after the statements of the prosecution and the defence the accused can put on record his views.

 

At that point the judge asked the defence to make its opening statement but was asked by the accused permission to speak. He said that he had issued a statement that was handed to world human rights organizations and the civilized world and that he had requested a copy be handed to President Bashar Al‑Assad. He was interrupted by the judge and turned to the prosecution asking them to proceed with their opening remarks. The prosecution requested maximum penalties in accordance with articles 291 and 294 as the accused has acted in contravention of articles 307,370, 376 and 378 of the Penal Code, and for violating Syrian law and Constitution.

 

The Accused interrupted the prosecution and said that it was them who were violating the Constitution and demanded that a copy of his statement be made available to the court and to Dr Bashar Al‑Assad, the President. The judge rejected his demands. The defence then handed the judge a memo containing the earlier demands of rendering the first interrogation null and void and asked for the release of the accused. The judge turned down the request, and the defence demanded that the judge step aside with the defence citing grounds for suspicion of lack of neutrality. The judge refused and adjourned the case to 27 November 2001 to allow the defence the time to appeal to the Court of Cassation. The accused asked the judge for permission to speak but the judge refused and the accused pleaded with him: "I am asking for four minutes. You have put me in jail for the last four months without any justification, yet you claim that I have a fair trial". He asked that his rights be respected and that the Constitution that was written with blood of the nation's forefathers must be respected too. The judge declared the sitting adjourned and the courtroom vacated. I was immediately mobbed by the press who asked for my views on the hearing. I smiled at them and said as an observer I must be neutral and that my views would be reflected in my report. In the background I could still hear the

shouting of slogans by the supporters of Al‑Wahda Club.

 

The trial of Riad Saif

 

Before getting into the details of the hearing on 14 November 2001 that I attended as a representative of the Program, I would like to provide a summary of the background to the case as presented to me by the defence team, which has been facing a news blackout imposed by the Syrian authorities.

 

The first Damascus investigating judge stated that having reviewed the papers of case No. 756 dated 15 February 2001 brought by the Damascus prosecution against Riad Saif under which he is charged with attempting to change the Constitution through illegal means, fomenting sectarian divisions and forming clandestine associations for illegitimate purposes, which are punishable in accordance with articles 291, 307, 327, 328, 335 and 336 of the General Penal Code, has decided to refer the case and its papers to a Damascus criminal court judge for trial for the abovementioned charges. The Investigating judge stated that the investigation conducted showed that the accused had founded a clandestine association, the Social Peace Movement, with aims that ran contrary to the law, held meetings in his house without permission from the competent authorities where provocative political statements were made, Issued a 6‑page statement on 31 October 2001 outlining a plan of action the contents of which is aimed at undermining national unity and fomenting sectarian divisions and casting doubt over the competence of the authorities. The file of the case contained a copy of the statement carrying the name of the movement, Order No. 30 dated 14 February 2001 of the Deputy Military Governor calling for putting the accused on trial before a criminal court, Letter No. 236 by the Speaker of the Assembly granting permission to interrogate Mr Saif without lifting his parliamentary immunity, a memo containing the statements made by speakers at meetings of the movement, the interrogation minutes before the judge on 3 & 9 March 2001, a letter from the Speaker of the Assembly under No. 924 of 6 September 2001 giving permission to arrest the member Riad Saif in accordance with Article 23 of the Rules of Procedure of the Assembly and copies of the statements made by the accused to the press in which he insists on breaking the law. The case was referred to a criminal court on 2 October 2001 subject to an appeal. The accused attended a hearing tribunal at the criminal court on 27 October 2001 in the judge's chambers, two months after his arrest according to the following articles:

 

       291: attempting to change the Constitution through illegal means, punishable with a minimum of five years imprisonment and a maximum of a life sentence if acts of violence were resorted to.

       307: any act, statement or speech aimed at or intended to foment sectarian and racial divisions, punishable with a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years imprisonment, a penalty of 100‑200 Syrian Liras and a ban from assuming public posts or seeking election for assembly and council membership in accordance with Article 65. The court may decide to make the ruling public

       327: 1‑An association or a society or any similar organization is deemed clandestine if founded in contravention of the law and conducted the whole or part of its activities secretly; 2‑ an association or society is considered clandestine if its foundation is not registered with the authorities declaring the names of its members, their professions, addresses, and the dates of its meetings and sources of financing.

       328: 1‑ Every clandestine organization shall be dissolved and its property and funds confiscated; 2‑ any person assuming a post with a clandestine organization shall be punished with imprisonment of a minimum of six months and a maximum of two years, and a penalty of 100 Syrian Liras minimum and a maximum of 500 Syrian Liras. Members shall face similar punishment and penalties.

       335: Any person present at a meeting of a private nature, regardless of purpose or number of people or location, using provocative and inflammatory language or signs or slogans to disturb the peace or instigate demonstrations, shall be punished with imprisonment of a minimum of one month and a maximum of one year, and a penalty of 100 Syrian Liras.

       336: Any gathering or convoy in Public roads or places shall be considered an act of rioting and shall be punished with imprisonment of a minimum of one month and a maximum of one year if involving three individuals or more and if at least one of them is armed.

       If a minimum of seven individuals gathered to protest a decision or a measure taken by a public authority, or if 20 or more individuals intended to put pressure on a public authority through gatherings aimed at disturbing the peace.

 

The defendant rejected all the charges. He insisted that he did not violate the Constitution and that all the charges brought against him fell within his right, as a citizen and a member of the Assembly, to express his views on his rights.

 

At the hearing session, the defence was barred from making any statements and denied access to the file of the case.

 

The 31 October 2001 was set as the date for the first public hearing. It took place amid tight security measures. Journalists, lawyers and diplomats were allowed into the courtroom, and visits to the defendant were allowed before the date of the hearing. The defence team attributed these measures to the popularity the defendant enjoyed, which was evident on the day of the hearing when a big crowd of workers from his factory turned up to follow the proceedings. The defence asked for the release of the defendant in view of the fact that he was interrogated and released by the investigating judge on 15 February 2001 with the permission of the Assembly but was later arrested without legal grounds and without fresh evidence against him. When Mr Saif was asked about the charges brought against him, he denied all of them and said that the Constitution was stillborn as a result of the emergency law in‑force. He maintained that he was in court because he called for an end to the economic and political monopoly of the ruling party and because the state has no stomach for any dissenting voice. The Judge refused to enter his statement into the record and prevented him from continuing. The defendant then said: "you will put in prison for five years so give me five minutes to speak". The hearing was adjourned until 14 November 2001 to hear the statement by the prosecution. On 14 November, I attended the hearing in my capacity as a representative of the Program and the Committee. Security measures were much tighter than those during Al‑Homsi's trial; No public was allowed to congregate outside as the case was when Al‑Wahda club supporters turned up and the courthouse was surrounded by Plain‑cloth security agents who were difficult to identify, contrary to what we are used to in Egypt. The inside door of the courtroom was securely locked while outside the defence, the defendant's family and diplomats from Belgium, the president of the European Union, Sweden, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the United States and Japan, as the case was during Al‑Homsi's trial.

 

I was searched on that day because I had put on my Syrian Accent and the security officer mistook me for a Syrian lawyer. By then, however, my presence had become known to the authorities and I felt that I was being shadowed from the time I attended AlHomsi's trial and after giving interviews to the press including those affiliated to the regime. But my experience helped me in dealing with them by insisting on my neutrality and the fact that I needed to look into the Syrian Penal Code carefully before expressing a view on the proceedings.

 

There were more than 20 defendants in the dock in addition to others who were brought in during the session, which made it difficult for the judge to focus on individual cases, and I felt sorry for him. Security agents swarmed the courtroom trying to ensure order. I also noticed the presence of wives of the 10 defendants and I was impressed by their solidarity, which at times, looked more sound than that of the defence team.

 

The same judge and panel that presided over the trial of Al‑Homsi presided over this one too, and the judge ordered that there would be no standing in the courtroom. As usual Khalil Ma'touq was arguing with the security outside but was less confrontational than his colleague Anwar Al-Bouni who was more dramatic in his conduct taking into consideration that four of his brothers and a sister were in prison awaiting release on the 15`1' anniversary of the Reform Movement (Akram Al-Bouni was released while this report was being prepared). Anwar has always maintained that he would not have peace of mind until all political prisoners are released and not only members of his family. There was also Mr Haytham Al‑Maleh, an authority on law and Islamic political movements in the region. After 90 minutes the hearing was adjourned. The attendance continued to wait. The majority was of the view that the delay was intended to discourage the public and the defence from staying on. But the wait created a host of problems for the security forces as the public was agitated for not knowing the outcome. The situation also reflected on the lack of experience among Syrian judges in staging phony trials.

 

During the hearing a number of Syrian citizens spoke to me, especially the elderly who witnessed the years of unity with Egypt, and asked me about the human rights and legal system in my home country, and the independence and integrity of the judiciary. They had the impression that Egypt was the utopia of human rights, a view that belied the truth. Some of the journalists cold not believe that the IPU and the UN were aware of my mission and had no notion that the Arab Committee and Program for Human rights had recognized status with the UN and that our observations would be relied upon for assessing the fairness of the trials. The discussion dwelt upon the dire situation of the Syrian judiciary and how judges awaited instructions from higher circles as was shown in the adjournment of the hearing for fear of getting into trouble.

 

At 1:54 the defendant and his multi‑sectarian defence team arrived. Riad Saif is a renowned political orator who is o a different level from Mamoun Al‑Homsi who is under fire by the Syrian press for his status as a businessman. I beg to differ with this view because Al‑Homsi's case is that of opinion and freedom of expression. When it comes to human rights it is a question of principle and not of one individual trying to prove his case.

 

I became aware of two different approaches by the defence:

The first, was in favor of going ahead with procedural matters of the trial while insisting on full access to documents and attempting to expose the bias of the court, calling for another judicial panel and the release of the defendant and the stepping aside of the judge. The second, insisted on the above requests and if the judge were to deny the request the defence would proceed with the case without asking the judge to step aside. As a lawyer, I was of the view that the first approach was more appropriate as it served to unmask the bias of the court and the lack of independence of the judiciary. Despite the enthusiasm of Syrian lawyers to defend prisoners of conscious and victims of human rights violations, their experience in this field remains of limited scope. That's why regional and international human rights bodies should do more to help Syrian activists.

 

When the defendant entered the courtroom, he was met with applause from the public, myself included. He showed a great sense of humor when he said to one of the security agents that the director had not planned this scene. The remark drew more applause from the public. Then he had a discussion with his defence team before the judge entered the room with the case file in his hand and ordered the evacuation of the room. The police followed his instructions.

 

The defence team was present and was led by Mr Hassan Abduladhim. Mr Haytham AlMaleh was not able to attend for personal reasons. I was only able to recognise Anwar Al-Bouni, Khalil Ma'touq and Al‑Rakadh, the most active members of the defence team.

 

The defence team insisted on having the complete file of the case and expressed readiness to pay for the expenses. The team insisted that the photocopying should not take place before administrative officials as this would be an insult to lawyers.

 

The court decided that the full file had been given to the defence as was decided by the investigating judge and as was decided by the Court of Cassation following the appeal by the defence team. The defence reiterated the request for the full file.

 

The judge said: "the rest of the file is a mere collection of newspaper clips". I believe this showed how inexperienced the judge was in leading a phony trial and was an admission on the part of the court that the case is one of freedom of expression and conscious. The judge saw the actions of the defendant an illegal attempt to hinder the functioning of the Syrian authorities. Statements to the press do not fall under such actions. The judge however gave permission to photocopy the file in accordance with the law. In my view the defence team will not be able to prove anything as the decision was vague. Even if it did, then the court will prove to be a legitimate one having yielded to the demands of the defence. This made me understand why my professor, Haytham Al‑Maleh, withdrew and the cause of frustration shown by Anwar And Khalil. The hearing was adjourned until 28 November 2001upon the request of the defence and there was applause in the courtroom for the defendant. But the judge asked for one of the clapping ladies to be brought before him. She turned out to be the defendant's wife. He held for half an hour having threatened to arrest her.

 

The judge ordered the evacuation of the room and the security forces started to clear the streets in an uncivilised manner as I witnessed while waiting outside to enquire from lawyer Razan about the fate of the defendant's wife.

 

I met the wives of the detainees who were allowed a visit on 13 November 2001 and was told that they were permitted TV sets and radios but not newspapers or stationary. The wives said to me they wished their husbands would be put to trial too. They told the individuals put on trial were members of the People's Assembly, but their husbands were ordinary citizens. They asked me what could the human rights movement do to help their husbands and other detainees. This brought to my mind the violations that have taken place and the negative response of Arab regimes.

 

General observations on the trials of Mamoun Al‑Homsi and Riad Saif

 

1‑               Investigation reports and decisions taken by investigating judges are all

dominated by security considerations. There is no respect for legal and constitutional rights. The contents are flimsy and uncorroborated and, therefore, cannot be described as incriminating. A statement by Assembly member Riad Saif to the press and news agencies or his founding of the Social Peace Movement is not a crime. It is rather an infringement of the minimum of his liberty as an individual. To punish Mamoun Al‑Homsi for a 10‑point statement read at the People's Assembly while in the line of his parliamentary duty or to use an exchange of faxes with another Syrian citizen Haytham Manna‑ as incriminating evidence is a joke. Any investigator using such evidence should be ashamed to say that he is living in the third Millennium.

 

2‑      The articles used as grounds for incrimination are a disgrace in a disgraceful law that was amended to suit the security authorities when it came to control of political, economic and social life, and to oppress any individual who dares to speak any language other than that of the Ba'th Party. Holding the two persons responsible for statements made in their capacity as parliamentarians is a flagrant violation of their immunity and runs contrary to the undertakings Syria had made under international laws and instruments. Articles 291, 294, 307, 327, 328, 335, 336, 307, 370, 376 and 378 of the Syrian Penal Code, analysed earlier in this report, are disgracefully incompatible with the Syrian Constitution (see Articles 10, 25, 26, 38,39, 52, 28, 66, 67, 69 and 72).

 

3‑      The independence of the judiciary in Syria is a subject that requires extensive analysis in itself, for there is no country in the world where the judge is a member of the ruling party.

 

4‑      Civil Society organisations or political opposition parties, within the Front or without, hardly have a discernable influence. The same thing can be said of the professional associations to which the detainees are affiliated. Negative attitudes by Assembly members were evident when they were called upon to stand by their two colleagues. Except for the human rights society and a few independent activists, precious little is done to tackle freedom of expression and human rights issues.

 

S‑      If civil society organisations have reason to fear intervention as a result of oppression and reprisals, World and Arab parliamentarians have no justification for their indifferent stand vis‑a‑vis the cases of Al‑Homsi and Saif.

 

6‑          It is the responsibility of regional and international human rights organizations to support Syrian activists who have enormous potential but lack information, experience, awareness and documentation in human rights related areas.

 

7‑         During my stay in Syria, I was not subjected to any harassment at the hands of the Syrian authorities. Regional and international institutions must work to help in any reforms undertaken in Syria to reverse the trend of oppression and detention advocated by the old guard. Finally, it is my duty to bow my head in respect to the prisoners of conscious in Syria for their assistance during my stay in Syria. They have humbled me with their determination and courage to see their country assume the role she deserves in history. They carry the torch that lights the way for others. This reminds of the Arab poem that says:

 

If I don't carry the torch,

If you don't carry the torch

If we don't carry the torch

Who will light the way.

 

 

Ahmed Fawzi