Secret police agencies have been a Syrian trade mark since the Baath coup d’état in 1963, and been working under the emergency law that has been lifted 3 weeks after the protests started. While the number of people arrested under the emergency law was around 3000, this number has become 10,000 according to human rights organizations even after lifting the emergency law. Secret police agents are still immune by a 2008 decree issued by the Syrian president Mr. Bashar Al-Assad, they are still arresting, torturing and killing people everyday. Their main targets now are journalists and people participating in protests.
Arrests in Syria are becoming dangerously ridiculous; liking a page on Facebook, blogging, accessing foreign media online websites, and contacting the foreign media are now among charges people might face. A friend of mine got a threatening call from secret police a few hours after emailing al-Jazeera applying for a job vacancy. The list is long, but when the threats reaches the circle of close friends, the danger of arrest or disappearing becomes more imminent, and with those threats, stories about the arrests become more personal.
M.T., a journalist friend of mine , was arrested at the start of this “revolution”. For three weeks, we didn’t know anything about him, or what “branch” of secret police made the arrest. All what we knew is what his roommate told us, “They have went through everything… even the kitchen drawers !!!.” M.T. is a good journalist who is known for his human rights activism. Working with foreign media, M. was among the primary targets of secret police. We were all worried about him, until suddenly, he was released. He was tortured, questioned about everything they found on his laptop, and moved several times blindfolded from one place to another. M.T. was laughing and making jokes about how illiterate, ignorant, and stupid those who questioned him were. He was able to find a laugh behind every story he told us, like when he was needed to translate for the police what a foreigner was saying to them; “They hit me every time I translated “I want to go home”, even though I told them that he was the one saying that not me”, he said, and continued with a big laugh, “I wished I told them I couldn’t translate, but then I thought they might not torture me before a foreign eye-witness as hard as they might do investigating me”… M.T. only spoke about what might help him made us laugh, but I could sense his fear of another arrest which drove me to believe that there were more frightening stories he chose not to speak about.
The arrest and torture might not have broken M.T.’s spirit, but with H.B. the case was different, as she was the first one we know to be arrested. She and her husband were arrested for over a month on March 23rd. “They were very abusive… I can’t talk about it now… I can’t meet anyone now”, she told a friend who called her a few days after she was released. Later she told us many stories about how they used to torture her husband in front her while he was blindfolded and didn’t know she was watching, “they did it more times than I can remember”, she said. Being astonishingly beautiful, we were worried that she might get raped. Telling a friend that I was hoping that she will get out “only tortured”, she said “are you insane??!!! They have never seen and will never see such a beauty… I am very worried”. H.B later told a friend that on the day they released her, they put her in a room where she could hear the screams of her husband for hours before they forced her to take off her clothes, sit completely naked in front of six secret police agents, wondering for 55 minutes if they were going to take turns raping her. The emotional trauma can still be witnessed on her face on the very few times she manages to grasp her courage to meet people. She hasn’t publish anything since she was released.
Seeing people like M.T. might help some of us to build a courage to be more active, but the face of the broken H.B. will break anyone’s heart. “My outlook has changed… my fear is paralyzing me… I can’t think… You’re old enough to remember stories from Hama in the 80’s, but for me it is the first time I witness such terror and agony”, one of my journalist friends told me.
While many journalists in Syria, including myself, have not being involved in any activism or writing about the unrest in Syria trying to avoid arrest and keep safe, the danger is becoming closer with people close to many of us are being either arrested or questioned by secret police. Emergency law is still in effect despite the presidential decree that lifted it and it is even worse than before.