In July, Syrian President Bashar Assad was received with high honors in Paris, shortly after Syrian political prisoners rioted at the Saydnaya prison near of Damascus, reportedly after their mistreatment by guards. The guards were said to have shot prisoners in reaction, before being overwhelmed, though the exact number of deaths was not clear. Some sources suggested around one or two dozen inmates had been killed.
That the two events occurred at around the same time was revealing, because the Saydnaya events in no way marred Assad’s French visit, which was surrounded by considerable publicity and countless interviews by French media outlets with the Syrian leader. Even though the regime in Damascus had once again displayed its indifference to human rights, a European government and European media had largely chosen to look the other way, on the grounds that “one has to engage Bashar.”
In that context, it is no surprise that European efforts in recent years to use multilateral processes — particularly heightened economic cooperation and the opening of markets — to strengthen democratic practices in the mainly Arab countries of the Mediterranean have failed miserably. Whether it is the contested Barcelona process, now more than a decade old, or most recently French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wooly scheme for a Union of the Mediterranean, Arab autocrats have watched with considerable delight as Europe has rationalized their uninterrupted brutality.
Take, for example, Assad’s answer to the daily L’Orient-Le Jour when asked why Syria still held political prisoners in its jails, in particular Michel Kilo. The Syrian president replied that there were only terrorists behind bars or those who had transgressed Syria law, not people “opposed to us.” The distinction was odd, for what Assad seemed to be saying was that imprisonment in Syria was never personal, as if one could truly distinguish in a place like that between the objectivity of the law and the interests of the Syrian regime. Assad went on to defend himself by implicitly criticizing France for its laws against Holocaust denial, when he said: “But we don’t have in Syria cases like that of the writer Roger Garaudy who entered prison because he had contested the Holocaust…”
In reality, Assad’s example was a poor one. Garaudy never went to prison. He received a suspended sentence for his writings, rather unlike Kilo, who got a three-year sentence for being a key figure behind the 2006 Beirut-Damascus Declaration, signed by hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals. The declaration supported an overhaul of Syrian-Lebanese relations through greater Syrian respect for Lebanese sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Kilo’s is a strange case. This is the second time that the writer finds himself in prison. The first time, he was accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. When he informed his interrogators that he was a Christian and could not possibly be a Brotherhood member, they responded that the Brotherhood was ecumenical. A character in Mustafa Khalifé’s novel The Shell (translated into French from Arabic, although few Arabic copies appear to still exist) is in a similar predicament: a Christian accused of collaboration with Islamist militants. Khalifé himself spent over 12 years incarcerated in Syria, and his novel describes the horrifying conditions at the military prison in Tadmur, “the prison in the desert.”
Another dissident, Yassin al-Hajj Saleh, described his experiences at Tadmur in this way: “The recurrent lesson the regime taught me is that it could always come up with things worse than our worst fears. After I completed my 15-year sentence they sent me to Tadmur prison, a place that literally eats men, that was worse than the ‘house of the dead’ described by Dostoyevsky. Fear is a way of life in Tadmur, where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people.”
Yassin al-Hajj Saleh was released in 1996, at the age of 35. He had spent 16 years in prison, and during his final years in detention Syria’s then-president, Hafez Assad, was being feted by the international community as a man of peace. Today Bashar Assad finds himself in a similar situation: With Syria engaged in indirect talks with Israel, few in the international community seem preoccupied with what his regime is doing to its own people — let alone with seeing through the investigation into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri.
That split personality at the international level — the willingness to accept double standards of justice and accountability — can only ensure that the countries of the Middle East will not soon witness a culture of openness. Hypocrisy among the world’s democracies will only bolster the hypocrisy of the Arab world’s dictators. In July, Bashar Assad sat in on a commemoration of Bastille Day, when one of France’s most notorious 18th century prisons was stormed. If only the Europeans would better show their desire to see Tadmur and Saydnaya go the same way.