“My colleagues are in prison for fighting for free expression”

UPDATE: Yara Bader, Mayada Khalil, Hanadi Zahlout, Sanaa Mehsen, Razan Ghazzawi, Joan Ferso, Ayham Ghazzoui and Bassam Alahmad were released on 12 May. Five members of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression remain in prison, including director and founder Mazen Darwish.

Free expression and human rights are under attack in Syria and the regime is fighting to distort the narrative. With the international media limited in its access and the barring of observatory human rights missions, it can be challenging for outsiders to understand what is happening. Brave Syrian civilians, journalists and activists struggle to show that their government, led by Bashar Al Assad has slaughtered thousands.

My own organisation was the victim of an aggressive campaign to discredit it.

I work for the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), as its executive manager. On 16 February 2012, Syrian authorities attacked our Damascus based office, arresting everyone present in the office that day: 14 employees and two visitors. I was the only one to go free after the raid; after locking me inside the office for hours and a lengthy investigation, I was lucky enough to go free. My diplomatic passport kept me safe.

Almost three months on I am now safe and sound, outside of Syria but my colleagues are still in prison. I feel guilty for not being with them, I would love to introduce them to you now, and show how civilised they are — as opposed to the members of a terrorist group that the Syrian regime would like to paint them — us — as. At SCM, I have worked with people who go beyond tweeting news or issuing statements — my colleagues risked their life fighting for real change.

I am not Syrian; it took me quite a long time to understand the situation there and to understand why people were whispering about freedom. I had to listen to stories — like that of journalist and activist Yara Bader, who had to live without her father for 12 years. He was a political prisoner, arrested when she was only two years old. Now, Bader is separated again from not only her father, but also from her mother and husband. Mazen Darwish, her husband, who is the head and founder of the SCM, is also in prison.

She and all my detained colleagues demonstrate courage beyond belief.

Hussein Ghrer, a blogger and activist, and father of two young boys, was also arrested. He risked his family’s life to secure their future.

Activist Abd Rahman Alhamada is the youngest member of our staff, arrested on his 23rd birthday. He was trying to balance being a student and working at the centre, but has now lost both opportunities.

Hani Zateni, a researcher and activist married fellow activist Sanaa Zateni after a courtship that spanned ten years. The couple come from different ethnic backgrounds, the regime pretends if it falls a civil war would break out between Syria’s various religious sects. This couple’s love demonstrates that there is a certain amount of harmony between religious groups.

Sanaa Mehsen ( Sanaa Zitani), is an activist and one of SCM staff’s members. Sanaa has been working with SCM for a long time, alongside her husband, Hani Zateni. She believes that the SCM provides the means by which people across Syria can be empowered with a voice to rise against oppression. She looks forward to helping the centre fulfil its goal of raising awareness about issues of freedom of expression in Syria.

And with the confusion of seeing millions of pro Assad regime supporters on the national Syrian TV, I was wondering why Razan Ghazzawi (blogger and activist) is not one of them? Why is such an educated, secular woman not supporting such a regime? And why was her Facebook campaign awarded the Best Social Activism Campaign award in the Deutsche Welle blog awards? Even after her release following her first arrest in December, the page continued demanding release of other detainees. Ghazzawi hates her own fame, as well as the media attention brought to her, as she believes that others have done more remarkable things than her but she has used it to help others.

The regime is simply anti-human, and this is what motivated Dr Ayham Ghazzoul, a dentist in his third year of his Masters degree, who could not handle watching innocent people, especially children, be killed. On the day he was referred to the judge, he told his mother that he had not taken a shower since the day of his arrest. He was smiling when he told her, as if it was a joke. He did not tell her about the countless nights in which he suffered. By avoiding the big topics, he was sending her a message that it does not matter.

Mayada Alkhalil, Joan Ferso, Bassam Alahmad, and Mansour Al Omarie were all arrested before they could even enjoy receiving their first paycheques. I hope the light inside them allows them to still enjoy themselves inside the darkness of the prison.

Human rights activist and blogger, Hanadi Zahlout, was visiting the centre the day it was attacked, and I wonder why she was even arrested in the first place? What did she witness?

Mazen Darwish, journalist, human rights defender, and founder of SCM, established the centre in 2004 in France because Syrian laws have no provisions for human rights and freedom of expression organisations. He fought for his belief in freedom and humanity, and decided to go back to Syria leaving his two children behind in France. In 2004 and 2007, Syrian authorities closed the office of SCM. Darwish managed to reopen the office in 2010. The centre is the first Syrian organisation to be granted UN consultative status. Darwish was awarded the Human Dignity award by the Roland Berger foundation for his work.

Dawrish always told us, “ there are not enough prisons for the free word” — let’s hope he is right.
Maha Assabalani is the executive manager of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM).