In the second of his dispatches, being serialised on the Syria News Wire, Kevin Sites visits Riad Seif. Seif was recently released from prison, along with a number of other Damascene Spring captives. Seif was a member of parliament at the time of his capture in 2001.
Kevin Sites is filing a series of video reports and photo essays – available here.
An ex-prisoner hopes to change Syria’s political landscape. Will the government let him try?
DAMASCUS — Riad Seif doesn’t look like a man who has spent the last four and a half years in a Syrian prison.
“I entered prison with a nice smile. It was like going to a party,” he says from his home in a Damascus suburb, one day after he and four other political prisoners were released.
Why would he consider being jailed like going to a party?
“Because I knew it was a difficult decision for [Syrian president] Assad to put me in jail. To take such a decision we must have been really harming them — they thought we were very dangerous for this regime,” he says. “I don’t like this regime and I can’t say anything but the truth. We are asking for freedom and democracy. When we say something people believe it.”
In September 2001, Seif, then a member of parliament, and nine other political activists were arrested and jailed in a conservative backlash against an emerging democratic movement that became known as the “Damascus Spring.”
“Damascus Spring was the hope in our movement for democracy,” says Seif. Government officials “thought they killed that hope. They delayed, but they made the movement stronger. Democracy is coming anyway. All that we ask is that it’s better to cooperate. To make it less costly.”
Seif says his prison time toughened him up physically — he walked or ran ten kilometers every day, losing four pounds — as well as politically.
“Before prison we were very tolerant of the regime, maybe too tolerant, maybe even a little naïve,” he confesses. “We thought, ‘Mr. Assad is this civilized man, this doctor — we have to help him move Syria from an authoritarian regime to a democracy as he will seek equal rights for everyone.'”
He says he no longer believes that.
Seif entered prison a bankrupt businessman; he has emerged as a political force. He’s the de facto leader of a nascent opposition, which, if allowed to organize, could present a serious challenge to the embattled government of President Bashar Assad.
Seif had been a highly successful businessman in Syria, running an Adidas plant and retail business which, he says, had 1,800 employees and exports totaling over $13 million at its peak in 1994.
“In my factory I was very well known for being kind and honest with the workers,” he says. “I was the example. I am by heart a socialist.”
Around the same time, Seif ran for parliament, and won. He began using his position to speak out against the government. That’s when, he says, his business starting turning south. He says the government prevented him from importing materials and he eventually went bankrupt.
Some time after, Seif says, he was approrached by then-Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who is now living in France and has accused Assad of threatening former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri prior to his assassination.
Seif says Khaddam offered him a deal. The deal was that his business would be restored and become even bigger than before. He could also continue to be an opposition figure — but that the opposition would be, for all intents and purposes, a fraud. He would need to keep the government informed of what he was doing as well as with whom he was working.
The Syrian government has already denied early allegations by Khaddam, calling him a traitor and a liar, in response to his statements about President Assad.
Seif says he never responded to the offer and continued organizing what he calls “civil society” forums to discuss democratic reform. After a large forum with a noted speaker, Seif says he was invited for coffee by the Minister of the Interior. Seif says he half-jokingly asked if he was going to be gone for a while and whether he should pack his shaving kit and pajamas.
When he arrived for the “coffee,” Seif says the Minister was not around, but had ordered Seif’s arrest. He was convicted and sentenced to five years for violating the constitution and inciting sectarian strife.
Seif and opposition leaders Walid al-Bunni, Habib Issa, Fawaz Tello, and another member of parliament, Mamoun Homsi, were all released last week, seven months before the completion of their sentences.
The Syrian government says the early releases are part of a larger plan of democratic reform, although it was done quietly and without fanfare. Western observers say it’s a sign that the Assad government knows it is in trouble.
But the Bush Administration contends Assad isn’t doing enough.
“The United States calls upon the Syrian authorities to release immediately all remaining Syrian prisoners of conscience,” the White House said in a statement shortly after the release of Seif and his four counterparts.
Today Seif looks and sounds like a politician. Wearing a suit and a tie, he is clearly energized by the nonstop phone calls from media wanting interviews and the steady stream of well-wishers: businessmen, intellectuals, and opposition figures who have stopped by his apartment to hear him speak.
He says he wants to form a secular “liberal political party” which will avoid corruption through transparency.
“I will build a party with some very reliable people — people with good names,” he says. “Our party will be very strict and have only well-respected, moral people as leaders. We will stand on two legs: we will be liberal and free market, but also [moral].”
He says their politics won’t be influenced by religion, and is confident the party will be hugely successful — if the government lets him organize.
“Our people are waiting for our message,” he says, “but we can’t even meet.”
For 42 years, the Syrian government has been run by the Baath Party — which heads a coalition of nine other legal parties called the National Progressive Front.
The Syrian government says a new law is in the works which would allow the creation of new political parties, like Seif’s, but so far has not provided a clear timetable of when that will happen.
And even though Riad Seif and five others are free, many more political prisoners remain in prison. And there are signs that the “new openness” is a slow work in progress.
While Seif talks about the future, human rights lawyer and opposition figure Haitham Maleh must argue for his — in front of a Syrian military tribunal. Maleh is accused of insulting the president in a letter in which he asked for a presidential pardon on behalf of another defendant.
The feisty 75-year-old is used to butting heads with the regime. He’s already spent seven years behind bars for his activism — but he says he can’t help it.
“I’m 75 years old. I can’t turn back now — it’s like heroin in my blood,” he says. “I have to continue the defense of my people in Syria.”
Maleh says the first argument he will make today is that the military tribunal is illegal.
“I’m not in the military,” he says.
Later, during the hearing, the government will argue the tribunal is legal because the insult was against President Assad, who is the commander of Syria’s military.
“I have to say the truth,” Maleh says, “whether they’re angry or not.”
Seif echoes that sentiment as he finishes up with another group of visitors. But he thinks the government will allow his work to move forward.< br />
“They are forced to,” he says. “Otherwise what is the cost of putting Riad Seif in prison? If they take me to prison again then I’ll be a real hero.”