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SYRIA: Interview with outspoken writer, Maha Hassan

DUBAI, 15 August 2005 (IRIN) - Fearing “threats and increasing repression against Kurdish organisations” Syrian-Kurdish journalist and writer, Maha Hassan, went into exile in France in 2004.

In an interview with IRIN, Hassan said despite Syria's accession to the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), the country still has a long way to go in improving basic human rights.

QUESTION: Why did you leave Syria?

ANSWER: I left Syria in August 2004 because of the increasing repression against Kurdish organisations, which began in March 2004, and the increasing threats against me. I have always felt threatened and I have always feared every representative of the state, even the traffic policeman.

The police have always meddled with my life – even in my private matters. Two days before the beginning of the war in Iraq [in 2003], while the rest of the world had its eyes on that country, the Syrian authorities brought me in once again for questioning for a reason I still do not know.

Q: Why do you believe you were banned from publishing in Syria?

A: The reasons I was banned from publishing in Syria were, as stated by the Human Rights Watch, because the authorities consider my writing too liberal, too feminist, and ‘morally condemnable’. I was writing on the three taboos – politics, sex and religion. If I do not write on these topics, what's left to write about?

Q: Would you describe your writing as controversial?

A: Of course, because sex is still one of the most sensitive topics in the east. When I published, in Lebanon, a story called 'The bride's fingers', dealing literarily with women's masturbation, I faced criticism even from women. The ideas brought up by the women's revolution in France in the 60s are still in Syria, and in the East in general, forbidden.

Q: How would you describe freedom of speech in Syria today?

A: Press freedom has not changed in Syria. The country has had no free media since the Baath Party came to power in March 1963. All newspapers are the party's mouthpieces and are linked to it some ways. The journalists that criticise the state are put in prison. Please refer to my testimony published in the 2005 annual report of Reporters Without Borders [www.rsf.org].

Q: How would you describe the situation of human rights in Syria?

A: The situation of human rights in Syria is really bad. Syria does not listen to the international and national appeals to free the political prisoners and the prisoners of opinion, some of them suffer health problems and badly need treatment. Even the lawyer and president of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, Mohamad Raadoun, is still in detention. Syria has been under the state of emergency for more than 40 years.

Q: A report on the state of human rights in Syria was released by the United Nations on 31 July. It stated concerns over the death penalty, torture and freedom for human rights groups. What is your response to this?

A: Syria is among the countries that still has the death penalty. Law 49, which makes affiliation to the Muslim Brothers punishable by death, is still applied up till now. Even though, as a woman, I am opposed to this organisation, I still condemn the death penalty.

Regarding torture, I do not have here enough time to say everything that needs to be said. I have friends that were detained in the Syrian jails, who are currently writing a book about their time in prison. A lot of people died under torture in Syria. Several human rights organisations published reports about the crimes of the Syrian regime, such as Human Rights Watch. Regarding human rights groups, their freedom is more and more limited.

For example, Mahmood Aryane, a board member of the Arab Organisation for Human rights in Syria, is not allowed to travel abroad, neither is the lawyer and human rights defender, Anwar Al-Boonni. The closing of the Atassi Forum, the only free discussion forum, also shows the tightening grip of the authorities.

Q: The report also welcomed Syria's accession to a series of human rights instruments, including on torture, women's and children's rights, the protection of migrant workers, and the elimination of torture. What progress, in your view, has been made on these issues?

A: The progress made by Syria on a series of human rights issues are only on the surface. The regime has not changed since Hafez al-Assad came to power [in 1970]. The new president had made a few small changes but the ruling style has not changed.

The last general meeting of the regional representatives of the Baath party shows the persistence of the old methods. Human rights are still not respected. Syrians are still living under a police state which uses terrorists' methods. Any person that dares to criticise the regime can be jailed. The fear of torture is on every Syrian's mind. I have myself written an article, using a pseudonym, regarding the beating of demonstrators by the police.

Q: How do you feel Syria can move forward on improving freedom of speech?

A: The only way to move forward would be changing the current regime through democratic elections and by allowing other parties to lead the country. For the last 40 years, during the presidential elections in Syria there was only one candidate. I ask for the support of all international humanitarian organisations to obtain the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of opinion in Syria and to put an end to the state of emergency.

I would like to take this opportunity to ask for an urgent intervention to ask for the release of Massoud Hamid, in jail since July 2003 for publishing pictures on internet. Because of torture, his leg is paralysed and he needs urgent care.

Theme (s): Governance, Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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