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Silencing the Opposition

Syrian democracy activist Riad Seif gets a virtual death sentence.

11:00 PM, Feb 12, 2008 • By DAVID SCHENKER
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LAST MONTH, Syria's leading dissident went to jail again. Riad Seif's arrest didn't come as much of a surprise; the former member of parliament and longtime human rights advocate had devoted much of the past two decades to criticizing the authoritarian Assad regime. He was released only two years ago after spending five years in prison for organizing meetings to promote democratic change. This time, Seif's transgression was attending a meeting of pro-democracy opposition groups.

Detentions of reformers and democracy and human rights advocates are not typically news in Syria. Neither are the allegations of physical abuse that several of Seif's incarcerated pro-democracy colleagues reported to Human Rights Watch. But Seif's most recent arrest is newsworthy because it essentially constitutes a death sentence for the 61 year old activist; not only does Seif suffer from diabetes and a heart condition, last year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

At the risk of eulogizing Seif prematurely, his accomplishments in Syria--and his perseverance--have been nothing short of remarkable. A garment trader by profession, Seif's business acumen made him prosperous and would have assured him and his family a life of material comfort had he not entered politics.

Seif's problems started in 1994 when he was elected to a four-year term in parliament. His business-oriented election campaign platform was innocuous and of little apparent concern to the regime. Once in parliament, however, Seif agitated for economic and fiscal reform and launched a campaign against corruption, which he termed "the source of all the evils . . . afflicting the Syrian people." Things went south from there.

In August 1996, Seif's 21-year-old son Iyad died under what he describes as "mysterious circumstances." Then, after Seif published a high-profile study on economic stagnation in Syria, the Ministry of Finance charged him with tax evasion and targeted his financial assets. Government fines in excess of $2 million essentially bankrupted the reformer.

Still, Seif soldiered on and was reelected to a second term in 1998. In parliament, he continued to focus on issues of transparency and corruption, most famously the ubiquitous phenomenon of mobile phone contract monopolies granted to regime cronies. This particular quest for transparency implicated members of the regime's inner circle including Rami Makhlouf (a cousin of the Assads), clearly hitting a nerve. Tempting the fates, he also began establishing organizations dedicated to increasing civil consciousness. In 1999, his role in establishing one such organization--the "Friends of Civil Society Forum"--earned him an audience with the feared Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam.

The regime subsequently denied the forum a license, a prerequisite for large gatherings in the repressive state, but Seif nevertheless convened the group and its better known successor organization, the "National Dialogue Forum," further angering the regime.

With the onset of the brief period of glasnost known as "Damascus Spring," which commenced upon Bashar Assad's anointment as president in 2000, Seif's pro-democracy political reform activities increased: there were more meetings and forums, and even talk of establishing a political party called the Social Peace Movement Party. Then he stepped up his attacks on the government from his perch in parliament. A February 2000 speech to the prime minister and cabinet, which Seif wrote about in 2007, provides a good sense of how far he was pushing the envelope:

"breaking the [Baath party] political monopoly is a necessary condition to implement the principle of transparency . . . any monopoly cannot help but breed sterility and stop development and growth. It is not possible to separate economics from politics . . . the political monopoly necessarily results in other economic, cultural, and educational monopolies . . . "

The Baathist majority struck Seif's statement from the parliamentary record, but his comments were not forgotten. When "Damascus Spring" ended in February 2001, the regime moved precipitously to strip Seif of his parliamentary immunity. Arrests of reformers commenced that summer.

But even from jail, Seif continued to push for reform in Syria. Perhaps his crowning achievement in this regard came in 2005, when he co-authored from Adra prison the "Damascus Declaration," which among other things demanded an end to the Assad regime and Baath party monopoly of power, a suspension of the Emergency Law, and the drafting of a new Syrian constitution.

When he was arrested last week, Seif was participating in a meeting of the Damascus Declaration National Council, an umbrella organization dedicated to the implementation of these reforms.