Tharwa Founder Testifies Before Congressional Human Rights Caucus

September 2008

On September 24, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus hosted an event entitled “Syrian Human Rights Policies in Syria and Toward Lebanese”. The event, moderated by Congressional Human Rights Caucus Executive Director Hans Hogrefe, featured testimony from Ali Abou Dehn, a Lebanese political detainee, Kamal El Batal, the Director of Human Rights for the World Council of the Cedars Revolution and Ammar Abdulhamid, Executive Director of the Tharwa Foundation.

Testimony at the Congressional Human Rights Caucus
Left to Right: Ammar Abdulhamid, Kamal Al-Batal, Ali Abou Dehn

Ali Abou Dehn began the discussion by chronicling the 13 years of torture, abuse and degradation he experienced in a Syrian jail as a political detainee. Abou Dehn, explained that he was often forced into admissions of guilt that were completely fabricated. For example, in order to stop a particularly grueling interrogation session, Mr. Abou Dehn said that he was an Israeli spy with access to high level Israeli officials including several Israeli Prime Ministers.

Detained from 1987 until 2000 for voicing his criticism of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Abou Dehn detailed the brutal beatings and executions that were all too commonplace during his years of detention. He also told the story of his return home after his release. Because of the length of his sentence he was unable to even recognize his own daughters. Abou Dehn ended his testimony with an urgent plea to work to release the thousands of Lebanese that are detained and exposed to draconian measures on a daily basis. These men have not seen their families for years and many of their families no longer hold hope that they will ever see them again.

Following Abou Dehn was Mr. Kamal El Batal of the World Council of the Cedars Revolution. Mr. El Batal courageously offered his testimony, despite the fact that he still lives in Beirut and could be wantonly abducted at any time. The efforts of the United States and the international community withstanding, UN Security Council Resolution 1559 has not been fully implemented. This resolution, if implemented to its full extent, would shield the Lebanese people from the human rights abuses of the Syrian regime. Unfortunately, Syrian intelligence and Syrian proxies still operate in Lebanon, terrorizing anyone who has the courage to speak out against the 33 year long Ba’athist occupation. The Assad regimes have successfully spread fear throughout the Lebanon, just as have they have throughout Syria.

Although both U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1680 call for full recognition of the sovereignty of Lebanon and for full diplomatic relations, the Syrian regime methodically violates the autonomy of the Lebanese state. Mr. El Batal, following many major media reports, said that there are currently 10,000 Syrian troops massed on the north Lebanese border. Mr. El Batal told stories of blackmailing and kidnapping and the daily human rights violations that the Lebanese are exposed to. Moreover, the Syrian regime is the likely perpetrator of a host of assassinations of numerous Lebanese public figures.

Mr. El Batal also explained the deleterious effects that groups like Hezbollah have had on the Lebanese political scene. “Taking away their rockets will not defeat them” El Batal quipped. Hezbollah operates a powerful propaganda machine and a successful information apparatus that has to be combated in order to curb their power and influence.

The last speaker to offer testimony was Ammar Abdulhamid of the Tharwa Foundation. Ammar discussed the internal abuses of the Syrian regime and the perilous situation that many dissidents find themselves under. Although the ascension to power of Bashar Assad to power was a time of great optimism, he continued, unabated, the same repressive policies of his father. The repression, which is often espoused to focus on Islamist elements within Syria, is most often directed towards liberal, reformist elements, Arab and Kurd alike. This year, the regime has paid a great deal of attention to the Damascus Declaration Council, the largest and most organized opposition coalition, detaining a large contingent of its leadership on spurious charges. Although exact figures are hard to come by, Abdulhamid estimated that since the early 1980’s nearly 18,000 prisoners have been taken into custody.

Abdulhamid also commented on the irony of Syrian President Assad attending Bastille Day in France while prison riots, riots that were sparked by the inhumane conditions at the Saydnaya prison, were occurring. There was scant media attention given to the prison riot and it is arguable that if it were not for several prisoners calling media outlets such as the BBC, Al‐Jazeera and CNN, that there would have been no mention of the riots or the estimated 25‐100 prisoners that were slaughtered by the prison authorities. The attendance of Assad, as a guest of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, evidences the “nonchalant and blasé” attitude towards human rights and democracy that must be changed in the international community.

Abdulhamid asserted that engagement with the Syrian must carry a certain level of conditionality. If the regime is not willing to neither rectify its manifold human rights abuses nor push forward with democratic reform, it should not be treated as an upstanding member of the international community. Syrian dissidents, particularly youths are frequently jailed for lengthy prison terms for criticizing the regime, while simultaneously Bashar Assad is participating in the inauguration ceremonies of the Mediterranean Union in Paris. Finally, Mr. Abdulhamid suggested that in order for the peace process to be successful between the Israelis and Syrians and the Lebanese and the Syrians that the internal situation in Syria must be resolved first.