CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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SYRIA: a voice from behind Syrian bars...

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Salameh Kaileh and his wife Nahed were married on 7 March 1998. It was an unusual wedding, conducted by proxy. Salameh was locked inside the prison of Hadra, in Damascus. Nahed, the bride, was at home. An engineer, she had spent herself 4 years in jail, from 1987 to 1991. Salameh had signed a power of attorney and during her next visit to the prison, Nahed put a ring on his finger. That was it. “We married so that I could visit him on a regular basis”, says Nahed. But a few weeks later, in June 1998, Salameh was sent to the Tadmour prison, in Palmyra, where visits were forbidden. “So we got married for nothing”, jokes Salameh.

Now living in Paris, Salameh is full of good humour, somewhat surprising from a man who spent eight years inside Syrian prisons and now has another Sword of Damocles hanging over him -- he is undergoing treatment for cancer. Unafraid of the Syrian secret police, or mukhabarat, Salameh Kaileh is determined to fight for his health and his political freedom. He has made it a personal mission to lift the veil of silence on the inhumanity of the Syrian prison system.

Born in 1955 in Bir Zeit, to a Christian Palestinian family, Salameh studied sociology and history at the Palestinian Bir Zeit University and later in Damascus. In Damascus he had contacts with the “Committees for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights” (CDF) of which several hundred members were arrested in the early 1990s. Denounced by a militant of the Communist Action Party (CAP), Salameh was arrested on 11 March 1992, and imprisoned in solitary confinement for 11 months.

Interrogated by Syria’s chief of the political intelligence, colonel Mahmud Abdel Wahab, he was asked the usual questions: “Who are you? What did you do? Whom do you know”. He decided to keep silent and was rewarded for his pains by a violent beating. Several punches in the face, which broke his glasses, marked the beginning of two weeks of non-stop torture and sleep deprivation

Salameh did not talk. Why do some people crack under torture, and others do not, I wondered? “It is an interesting question and one frequentlydiscussed by prisoners”, comments Salameh who was arrested because a militant who knew him cracked under pressure, even before he was tortured. “There are two factors”, he explains; “the severity of torture; and the personality of the prisoner, his psychological strengths and weaknesses. Often people who behave in an extreme way are the most fragile and the first to break down ».

After 11 months he was transferred to the central prison of Hadra, in Damascus, where he continued to await trial. It was only in February 1996, four years after his arrest, that he was finally brought to court and sentenced to eight years in jail. With hindsight, Salameh says Hadra was a “five stars prison”. “We were relatively free in our dormitories; we could talk between ourselves and we had newspapers and television. Every day we were allowed outside for a walk in the courtyard”.

Without warning, in June 1998, Salamek was transferred to Tadmour prison, in Palmyra. “It was not a prison, it was a concentration camp, we had no rights whatsoever”, comments Salameh. « When we were transfered, we were told we needed a good lesson? For what? I do not know. We were punished for something we remain ignorant up to this day”.

In Palmyra, Salameh lived for almost two years with 12 other prisoners in a dormitory of two rooms measuring four meters by four meters. Soldiers on the roof watched them day and night through a hole in the ceiling, though the prisoners were forbidden to look up at their captors. “We were under strict orders to keep our heads down. We could not see the face of our guards. If we did, we were punished, beaten on the sole of our feet. Prisoners slept from 7pm to 7am. It was forbidden to talk during the night. “But we did not talk much anyway”, recalls Salameh, “we knew beforehand everything the others might say”.

During these two years, Salameh was allowed outside only twice for five minutes -- walking with his head down, looking at his feet. The only news of the outside world he had was from reading Al Baath, a government newspaper. At the time there were between 800 and 1.000 prisoners in Tadmoura but Salameh knew only the 12 who shared his dormitory, all members of the Communist Action Party (CAP). “Prisoners from different political parties were not mixed”, explains Salameh, “and we had no contact with the others. We knew from prisoners we met in Hadra that most of the inmates were Muslim Brothers and pro-Iraqi Baathists, but in Tadmoura we had absolutely no contact with them. Nor did we did try to because we were afraid of the guards. »

During his 19 months in Tadmoura, Salameh did not receive a single visit. It was the rule: there were no visits in Tadmoura, without influential family or friends.

On 22 March 2.000, after eight years and 11 days in prison, Salameh was set free. But the political activist was not tamed. He waskeen to resume the political struggle. “I wanted to fight for political freedom, not only in Syria, but in Palestine and the Arab world at large”, he explains. But another fight was also awaiting him.

During his last months in prison, Salameh complained of pains in his back and was treated for cramp. But in June 2.001 after he suffered similar pains, a doctor diagnosed cancer. Salameh decided to travel to France for treatment accompanied by Nahed.

Between stays in hospital for chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, Salameh is eager to meet the press and explain the situation of political prisoners in Syria. “Nobody knows exactly how many political prisoners there are in Syrian jails, he says, probably between 800 and 1.000. Most of them are held at Sadnaya prison since Tadmour was closed at the end of 2.001. Among them, are a number of very old prisoners, members of the Communist Party who were arrested in 1975 and sentenced to life. There are also members of the pro-Iraq Baath, and many Muslim Brothers arrested in the 1980s”.

And there are of course some new prisoners: members of the Hizbe Tahrir, arrested in 2.001. And a dozen of opponents who were recently arrested or re-arrested: Riad Turk and his lawyer Habib Aissa, and two MPs, among others. Still, Salameh Kaileh thinks that the Syrian government is determined to improve the situation, and believes that gradually the elderly prisoners will be released.

But he is not so optimistic for the people more recently arrested. He stresses that there is a huge file which remains untouched, cataloguing the missing. “Between 3.000 and 4.000 people are missing”, claims Salameh, “they were executed or they died in prison, but the end of their story needs to be told”.

Does Salameh believe President Bashar Al Assad will help solving these issues? “There will be a new page”, concludes Salameh Kaileh. “There will definitely be changes”. And he hopes to be around to see them.

(The Middle East magazine, November 2002)
















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