‘The world has closed its eyes to what is happening in Syria’
Leading Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni to address Dublin event
Anwar al-Bunni: “There is no future for Syria if the people responsible for war crimes are not brought to justice.”
When plain-clothes agents approached Anwar al-Bunni outside his Damascus home on May 17th 2006, his first reaction was one of weary familiarity. After decades spent defending dissidents and opponents of the Syrian regime headed by Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, who succeeded his father in 2000, the lawyer knew the drill. He had often spent a day or two in custody, where officers would threaten him with arrest or death, or hint that his children could “have problems at school”, as he puts it.
That day in mid-2006, the Mukhabarat, Syria’s military intelligence agency, acted on one of those threats. Bunni was bundled into a car, blindfolded and beaten. He was charged with seeking to overthrow the regime, threatening public order, incitement to sectarian hatred and being in contact with foreign powers.
He was sentenced to five years, which he was forced to spend not among political prisoners but criminal detainees. Some rules were specially adapted for Bunni: he was forbidden from having any reading material other than official Syrian newspapers. “They put me in with murderers, to push me more and more,” he says.
“It gave us the space to speak, to publish, to let the world know what was happening,” says Bunni. He developed relationships with journalists, who began publishing his comments and reporting on some of the 650 political prisoners he represented.
The spark for his arrest, it appears, was Bunni’s decision to join 273 other Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals and artists in signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, published by An-Nahar newspaper in Beirut on May 11th, 2006. The declaration called on Syria to “respect and consolidate the sovereignty and independence” of both countries by defining borders and establishing diplomatic relations. He was arrested, along with 11 other signatories, six days after publication.
Bunni, now in his mid-50s, became a lawyer to defend dissidents. His Christian family, from the city of Hama, was well known for its opposition to the Assad family’s rule, and Bunni reckons his immediate relatives, many of whom were members of the Communist Party, have spent 73 years between them in prison.
Speaking ahead of a visit to Dublin, where he will take part in the 8th Front Line Defenders Platform – which brings together 119 human-rights workers from more than 100 countries – he says his experience was mirrored by many others working to defend human rights under the regime.
When he was in jail, between 2006 and 2011, there were two attempts on his life, Bunni says. In one incident, imprisoned ex-regime officers tried to throw him from a second-floor balcony but he was saved by other inmates. He went on hunger strike but began to eat again because he worried about the toll his situation was taking on his children. “It’s a miracle I survived,” he says.
There were some sources of encouragement. In 2008 he received the Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, which was collected on Bunni’s behalf by his wife Raghida Issa. The following year he was awarded the Human Rights Award by the German Association of Judges. “What helped me was that I knew the world cared about what was happening in Syria.”
He criticises western states for indicating they may be willing to see Assad remain in power for the duration of any political transition and dismisses the view that Assad should be strengthened as a bulwark against Islamic State (IS). “Daesh (IS) came from outside Syria. It was Bashar and his party that let them come.”
Particularly galling, he says, is the impunity with which the Assad regime can act. “There is no future for Syria if the people responsible for war crimes are not brought to justice. The world is wasting time while people are suffering and dying. Nobody has taken a decision to end this tragedy.”
The 8th Front Line Defenders Platform begins at Dublin Castle today and runs until Friday