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Political freedoms shift in Syria

A dissident's prison sentence is seen as a signal: The boundaries of what can be said in public have narrowed.

May 06, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — Anwar Bunni's wife had seen this moment often in her nightmares: the secret police emerging from the shadows, forcing her activist husband into a waiting car.

After all these years, it felt like a spell had been broken.

"You're waiting for the beast to arrive, and finally it comes," Raghida Issa said. "I felt relief."

But their trouble had just begun. Bunni, a vocal critic of the Syrian regime, was held for nearly a year before a military judge sentenced him last month to five years in prison. In a verdict that drew immediate condemnation from Amnesty International and the State Department, he was convicted of, among other things, spreading false or exaggerated news that could weaken national morale.

Like others in his circle of well-known intellectuals seeking democratic reform, the prominent human rights lawyer seemed to be protected by his fame. But what was once permissible is no longer tolerated. Observers believe the verdict in his case was a signal: The political landscape in Syria has changed once again. The boundaries of what can be said in public have shifted during the last year and the regime now has a narrower view of what is permissible.

"They play this game with the red lines -- it's like Tom and Jerry," said one opposition leader who didn't want to be identified for fear of persecution. "They select some people to show they are still strong."

The dissidents' families pay the price, Issa said, but she wanted no pity.

Issa knew what she was getting into when she married Bunni almost 30 years ago. Her sister had married his brother and they were both active in politics and had previously been arrested and imprisoned. Between them, the two families have spent a lifetime in prison -- 60 years, when the sentences of various family members are added up.

This, however, was Bunni's first time in prison. He has not been allowed to have a radio or books, his wife said.

"He never regrets what he has done, but sometimes he's frustrated," Issa said. "Sometimes I think, 'What have we contributed to society to make it worth this high price?' "

Sitting in their modest living room, Issa wore no jewelry except her wedding band. The lines of her face were not covered by makeup. On an otherwise bare wall hung a painting of a forest -- a peaceful idyll in a cheap frame. Like Damascus itself, the apartment was fragrant with the scent of cardamom.

On this afternoon, Issa was flanked by family members: her daughter, sister and mother.

Although her family offers solace, Issa still feels acutely the absence of her husband.

They used to share a cup of coffee in the mornings, talking and surfing the Web for news together, she said. Now there is an empty chair across from hers, and the rituals of everyday life lie shattered.

There is also the loneliness woven with fear: being shunned by colleagues, friends staying away, a silent phone.

"Because of the political situation that we were in -- even my sister was arrested -- you feel this social isolation," said Issa, an engineer who works for the Ministry of Transportation.

She didn't think it strange that the government she works for is the government that imprisoned her husband.

"This is Syria," she said, and shrugged.

Promises of reform

Seven years ago, Bashar Assad assumed power in the country after the death of his father, Hafez.

At the outset, the younger Assad promised economic and political reforms.

The government has followed through on his pledges to open up the economy, making it more market-based. The economic reforms have spurred significant foreign investment, evident in the high-powered BMWs cruising among luxury hotels and fashion stores downtown.

At first, Assad seemed to come through also on his promises of reform, releasing hundreds of political prisoners. The first months of this perceived political thaw became known as the "Damascus spring."

Since then, however, there has been no meaningful political reform. With the economy growing and the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, the Syrian regime appears stronger than ever -- confident enough to ignore international objections to the detentions of Bunni and others.

Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with Syria's foreign minister on the sidelines of a summit in Egypt, the Bush administration has campaigned for years to isolate the Syrian regime, and dissidents inside the country are leery of U.S. support. Nobody here wants any intervention from Washington.

"The American attitude in the Middle East makes them unhelpful," said Riad Seif, another opposition figure. "Anti-Americanism is at its height, and the regime is using this against the democrats."

Thousands of other political prisoners, many of them members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the Communist Party, are still held by the regime, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, Assad's government refuses to acknowledge their existence.

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