Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS)

Veteran activist’s demands reflect new Syria

Veteran activist’s demands reflect new Syria

26 July 2011

Two months ago, when prominent Syrian human rights lawyer
Anwar al-Bunni finally stepped onto the streets of Damascus after completing a
five year jail sentence, he walked out into a changed world.

On a personal level, the nightmare of his prison existence-
a prisoner of conscience surrounded by convicted criminals and living in fear
of attack by both inmates and guards – was finally over. But, more broadly, the
popular protests that had erupted two months earlier meant that Syria itself
had been transformed. He and other human rights defenders no longer felt alone.

“In the past, only a few of us dared to call for freedom and
human rights.”  he told Amnesty
International. “We used to feel isolated, as the majority of people avoided us
out of fear of retribution from the authorities. After my release, I have realised
that my demands became the demands of all the Syrian people.”

While in jail, he also received international recognition,
in the form of a Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders. But such
recognition, both at home and abroad, came at a steep personal price. Anwar
al-Bunni has been subjected to various forms of harassment, including facing
disciplinary measures from the Damascus Bar Association, and being banned from
travelling abroad In 2006 he was arrested for being among some 300 Syrian and
Lebanese nationals who signed a petition calling for the normalisation of
relations between Syria and Lebanon. A year later he was jailed for five years
on a charge of “spreading false information harmful to the state” after
speaking out about the case of a prisoner who died in detention as a result of
torture or other ill-treatment.

 Instead of being
incarcerated with like –minded prisoners of conscience, Anwar al-Bunni served
his entire sentence in the so called “Killer’s Wing” at Adra Prison. There he
shared an overcrowded cell with convicted criminal prisoners, including some
who were under sentence of death. The threat of violence too was always

“I spent most of my five–year sentence in a state of
constant worry of possible attacks by other prisoners especially because I had
been assaulted before by other inmates under pressure from the
administration.”  The guards also beat
and degraded him, at one point shaving his head and making him crawl on all

But Anwar al-Bunni was undeterred. Since his release, he has
returned to his profession in the law, representing detained protestors in
courts, writing papers on how Syria’s political system could be reformed and
investigating human rights violations against some of the thousands of Syrians
arrested after recent demonstrations. “Many are held in inhuman conditions
where torture is quite widespread”. He recently spoke to a recently- released
prisoner who was being incarcerated in a four-metre-square cell with around 200

As for what the Syrian government has announced as reforms
in response to the mass protests, including the lifting of the 48 year old
state of emergency, Anwar al-Bunni says these have failed to transform the
realities on the ground. On the contrary, he says, the authorities have
introduced new measures to legalise mass arrests and extend incommunicado
detention from a lawful maximum of four days to one of 60 days.  “Legally”, he says “the situation now is
worse than before.” 

On a personal level, he and his wife are among many Syrians
who remain banned from travelling abroad, despite a recent official
announcement that such bans have been lifted. And for the next seven years he
remains barred from voting or putting himself forward for election, working in
the public sector or publishing or editing any publication.

But for Anwar al-Bunni, the response he has received from
his fellow Syrians makes it all worthwhile. “Unlike before, people now openly
express their solidarity with me and their respect for all that I have done.”
he said.  “To feel that you have actually
given something to others and that they recognise and value what you have done
is a great feeling!”

He also expressed thanks for Amnesty International’s support
during the dark days of his imprisonment. He did not receive letters sent to
him by the organization but was told of them by his wife: “I thank you very
much and I consider myself as if I received the letters personally.”