Syrian Exiles Fear Long Reach Of Secret Police

Oct 3, 2011
Originally published on October 3, 2011 4:51 pm

Syrian exiles have been harassed and monitored at anti-government protests abroad, and their families back home have been threatened, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

The report — "The Long Reach of the Mukhabaraat," or secret police — documents the cases of more than 30 Syrian activists living in Europe and North and South America. Many have been filmed and have received threatening messages, and they report that family members in Syria have been beaten and detained.

Ahed Al Hendi has experienced his fair share of harassment by Syrian security personnel. He spent a month in jail for his student activism five years ago, and since then has lived abroad. He describes a scene outside the Syrian Embassy in Washington earlier this year, when one embassy employee came out and tried to take a picture of him.

"He called us by our names to show that we know your name," Al Hendi says.

Beaten, Detained, Disappeared

At the time, Al Hendi didn't feel very threatened, but then things started happening. A friend and fellow protester, who wants to remain anonymous, reported that his family was shown a picture of him at a demonstration and told, "Tell your boy not to bring snakes into the family nest."

"We had a person that was protesting with us called Bashar Al Aisamy. His father is an elderly person residing in Beirut, and then he was [kidnapped] from Beirut and taken to Syria," Al Hendi says. Several months later, his family has had no word from him, although family sources in Syria have verified that he is held at a Syrian security center in Damascus.

A well-known pianist and composer, Malek Jandali, who played outside the White House at a rally in July, reports that his parents were badly beaten and their apartment in Homs looted by security agents who warned "this is what happens when your son mocks the government."

Amnesty International has gathered similar stories about Syrians living in Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.

Ambassador: Claims Are 'Preposterous And Ridiculous'

Earlier this year, the Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustapha, was called into the State Department to hear a formal U.S. protest about allegations of spying on dissidents. He told NPR recently that the U.S. government "did not provide a single shred of evidence."

"We have 600,000 Syrian expatriates living here in the United States. My embassy is a very small embassy. I have four diplomats. Do you expect four diplomats plus the ambassador to threaten and to spy on 600,000 Syrians across the United States, from California to New Jersey?" Moustapha says. "This I think is preposterous and ridiculous."

Al Hendi, the young Syrian dissident, who works for a human rights group called CyberDissidents.org, wonders why, then, diplomats were taking pictures of dissidents when they had other jobs to do.

"Is he taking it as a souvenir? I don't know. Does he love us so much to keep our pictures? I don't think so," Al Hendi says.

For Some, Threats Are Working

Sirwan Kajjo, 24, knows what happened to a picture taken of him by a Syrian Embassy official: It went straight back home, and a security officer used it to threaten his brother.

"He threatened to jail him if I wouldn't stop my political activities and my protests here in D.C.," Kajjo says.

Yassin Ziadeh, the brother of another prominent dissident in the U.S., Radwan Ziadeh, was picked up by plainclothes security personnel outside Damascus a few weeks ago and hasn't been heard from since.

The threats have worked on some Syrian exiles, who say they are keeping a lower profile now, scared for their families back home. And many report receiving threatening emails, text messages and Facebook messages, warning that just because they live in the U.S., they aren't safe from Syrian security forces.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Syrian security forces have a long reach and are tracking dissidents abroad. That's the conclusion of a report out today by Amnesty International. It documents more than 30 cases in which Syrian exiles have been threatened and harassed, and their families in Syria have been roughed up, arrested or worse. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN BYLINE: Ahed al Hendi has had his fair share of harassment by Syrian security personnel. He spent a month in jail for his student activism five years ago and since then has been living abroad. He wasn't too surprised by his run-ins with Syrian embassy officials here in Washington when he was outside protesting earlier this year.

AHED AL-HINDI: A guy, he came from inside the embassy, and he was very rude. He asked us to take picture. He called us with name to tell us that we know your names.

MICHELE KELEMEN: At the time, he was mainly annoyed. But then, things started happening to family members of his friends. One of his fellow protesters - he didn't want to name him - reported that his family was shown a picture of him at a demonstration and told, quote, "tell your boy not to bring snakes into the family nest."

AHED AL HENDI: And we have a person who was protesting with us called Bashar Al Aisamy. His father is an elder person residing in Beirut. And then he was hijacked from Beirut and taken to Syria. And that was months ago, and we know nothing about him so far. He's over 85 years of age, and they hijacked him.

KELEMEN: A well-known pianist who played outside the White House at a rally over the summer reports that his parents were badly beaten by government agents who warned that this is what happens when your son mocks the government. Amnesty International has gathered many such stories about Syrians living in Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and here in the U.S. Earlier this year, the State Department called in the Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustapha, to protest the allegations of spying and harassment of dissidents. He told NPR recently the U.S. government offered no proof.

IMAD MOUSTAPHA: Let me tell you this. We have 600,000 Syrians, expatriates living here in the United States. My embassy is a very small embassy. I have four diplomats. Do you expect four diplomats plus the ambassador to threaten and to spy on 600,000 Syrians across the United States from California to New Jersey? This - I think this is preposterous and ridiculous.

KELEMEN: The young Syrian dissident, Ahed Al Hendi, who works for a human rights group called cyberdissidents.org, wonders why Moustapha's small staff has been so interested in photography lately.

HENDI: The thing is we saw them taking picture of us. I wonder why. When a person who's responsible for the diplomatic affairs, or a person who's responsible for issues dealing with the Congress at the embassy, why he would come in and take pictures of us and ask us to take picture of us? I mean, is he keeping it as a souvenir? I don't know. Does he love us so much to keep our pictures? I don't think so.

KELEMEN: Twenty-four-year-old Sirwan Kajjo knows what happened to a picture taken of him by a Syrian embassy official. It went straight back home and was used by a security officer to threaten his brother.

SIRWAN KAJJO: And he threatened him to jail him if I wouldn't stop my political activities and my protests here in D.C. So of course, my brother transferred that to me right away because he was just simply afraid that they're going to do something.

KELEMEN: The brother of another prominent dissident in the U.S. was picked up by plainclothes policemen a few weeks ago outside Damascus and hasn't been heard from since. The threats have worked on some Syrian exiles, who are keeping a lower profile now, scared for their families back home. And many report getting threatening emails, texts and Facebook messages warning that just because they live in the U.S., they aren't safe from Syrian security forces. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

GUY RAZ, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.