Life as a Permanent State of Emergency

Haitham Maleh, president of the Human Rights Association in Syria, has been visiting Germany to take part in a hearing organised by the Bundestag's Human Rights Committee. He was interviewed by Dorothee Winden

The lawyer Haitham Maleh, president of the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS), has been visiting Germany to take part in a hearing organised by the Bundestag’s Human Rights Committee. He was interviewed by Dorothee Winden.

photo: Amnesty International
Haitham Maleh

​​From 1980 till 1987, Haitham Maleh, who is now 72, was imprisoned without trial and indeed without having been charged with any crime. A member of the Lawyers’ Association, he had offended the country’s rulers by pleading for an end to the State of Emergency that has existed in Syria since 1963. In 2001, he was one of the founders of the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS), which now has 70 members throughout the country. He was also part of the defence team for the ten political prisoners of the “Damascus Spring”, the Syrian pro-democracy movement that was harshly suppressed in 2001.

Mr. Maleh, under what conditions does the HRAS have to work?

Haitham Maleh: Our organisation’s website is banned in Syria, and we are not allowed publish either journals or brochures. We distribute our reports via the Internet or by hand. In 2002, we had a magazine printed in Lebanon called Tayyarat (which means “Currents” in Arabic), and as a consequence, we were subjected to enormous pressure. I was brought before a military tribunal because of this.

You were charged with “distributing an illegal publication” because you had imported the magazine to Syria.

Maleh: They intended to arrest me, but I managed to leave the country in time. After fleeing Syria on August 3rd, I spent 80 days travelling through 11 different countries, including Syria, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and several European countries. And then I moved back into Syria from Amman. The only luggage I had with me was a small bag containing underwear and a razor. I said to myself, “If they arrest me now, I’m ready for it.” But they didn’t catch me at the border.

Later, someone brought me my suitcase from Amman. Then my case came up before the military court. The proceedings dragged on from January till July 2003; then the case was dropped: President Bashar al-Assad had issued an amnesty. Mine was the only political case that had been heard.

What have been the personal consequences of your activities as a human-rights lawyer?

Maleh: The regime controls everything. Three officers of the Secret Service are posted in front of my office. When I leave my office, they follow me wherever I go. My telephone is bugged. They try to frighten me. In March of this year, I gave a lecture in Paris on 40 years of the State of Emergency in Syria.

As a result, I was forbidden to leave the country again, but I fought this successfully in court. I’ve also been banned from giving any more lectures. In June 2002, they pressurised the Lawyers’ Association to withdraw my licence for three years. This would make it impossible for me to practise as a lawyer. They might as well hang me, for how can I make a living if I’m not allowed to work?

How did the Lawyers’ Association react?

Maleh:They rescinded my licence; but I’ve lodged an appeal, so it’s not yet certain how this will end.

What problems do you face in your work as a lawyer?

Maleh:There is no independent judiciary in Syria. The judges are practically powerless, for example when it comes to passing sentences. The real power is in the hands of the Secret Services; it’s them that the judges listen to. There is no justice in Syria. I have lost several cases because there were members of the Secret Services on the other side. In another case, concerning the closure of a criminological laboratory, I actually won – but in four years, we still haven’t been able to enforce the decision of the court.

What are the reasons for this?

Maleh:It’s impossible! When I work in Syria, I feel as if I’m swimming in a dark room and can’t see a light anywhere.

But in some cases your efforts have been rewarded with success.

Maleh:That’s true. Some people have been released as a result of the pressure we brought to bear. In one case, for example, I sent a telegram to the Ministry of the Interior, and the prisoner was released a week later. Last month, I had a case in which a Kurd had been arrested by the political intelligence services.

After a few days, he was released; but he had to sign some papers without even knowing what he was putting his name to. They told him, “Forget your house in Mezzeh!” (A district in Damascus). And it turned out that they had removed the furniture from his home and confiscated the house. After I protested, he got his house back.

How is the work of the HRAS financed?

Maleh:I don’t take any money for my human-rights work. In other words, half of the work I do as a lawyer is free of charge, because the people need my help. So, as you can imagine, I’m not exactly rich. The HRAS doesn’t have an office of its own, as this would simply incur too many costs. We use my lawyer’s office as the office of the Human Rights Association.

What can Germany or the European Union do to support people who are working for human rights in Syria?

Maleh:It would help greatly if European countries would invite human rights activists to conferences, or give them grants or bursaries so that they could acquire further training in matters concerning human rights. We cannot accept direct financial support from abroad, because the regime would accuse us of maintaining relations with other states.

The European governments should make it clear to the Syrian government that it’s normal for human rights organisations to receive money from European NGOs. In addition, I hope that the EU will not sign the Association Agreement with Syria until the government respects human rights.

Mr Maleh, thank you very much for the interview.

Dorothee Winden © 2003
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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