From a country where there is little reason to celebrate, here is some good news: Amnesty International learned Monday that Syrian human rights activist Mazen Darwish, who had been jailed by the Assad government on trumped-up terrorism charges, has been released.
His release follows last month’s release of Hani al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir, two of Darwish’s colleagues from the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).
The three were the focus of a significant Amnesty International campaign over the past three years, including efforts through Write For Rights and a Day of the Disappeared campaign. It is right that we offer a little celebration today, even as we remind ourselves that the good news doesn’t change the situation of the thousands of people in jail for political activity, the many deaths in custody, the more than 200,000 people killed in the conflict and the continuing humanitarian crisis that has trapped more than 7 million internally displaced Syrians and put more than 4 million into refugee camps.
But Mazen Darwish’s release is still worth celebrating because he and his colleagues at SCM represented what the Syrian uprising was meant to be, and what could have been. They represent the belief of the Syrian people that they deserve a better future, a future based on respect for human rights.
In the early days of the Syrian uprising, the SCM played a key role in getting out information about developments in Syria. As journalists had only limited access to the country, Darwish and others collected reports of human rights abuses and announced them to the world through blogs and other communications.
But what we call human rights work and free speech, the Assad government considers terrorism. The SCM’s work ended in February 2012, when the SCM offices in Damascus were raided by officers of the Air Force Intelligence service. Darwish, al-Zitani, Gharir and others were arrested.
For more than nine months, the SCM prisoners were held in conditions that amounted to enforced disappearances, shut off from legal assistance and family visits and subjected to torture.
In February 2013, a year after their arrest, the three activists and two of their other colleagues, were accused of “publicizing terrorist acts” before the Anti-Terrorism Court. The trial, to Amnesty’s knowledge, never was completed; Darwish and his colleagues simply languished in a prison system where torture and ill-treatment is known to be systematic.
Darwish, Zitani and Gharir should never have been arrested, much less tortured or charged with terrorism. The popular movement that started with children – children! — in Deraa expressing free speech offered Syria a path that promised to unify a country that has been divided for decades by oppression and terror. That movement was met by the Assad regime with a doubling down on violence and threats. The least surprising thing about the entire conflict is that the Assad regime’s violence simply opened the door to the chaos we now see in Syria.
There was another way, and the worse possible response for the world would be to forget that that hope is part of Syria. Let our deeply felt celebration that Mazen Darwish is out of prison renew our engagement with Syria, even as that joy is tempered by the reality that all of Syria remains a place of terror.