On May 11, 2011, Al Jazeera conducted a phone interview with my friend the writer and Syrian rights activist Najati Tayyara. In that interview, my friend spoke with complete candor about the brutal, bloody practices of the Syrian regime’s apparatuses against peaceful protestors demanding freedom and democracy.
That evening, I wrote on my Facebook page that the Syrian regime would arrest Najati Tayyara on that day or the next. I added that I was writing that so that perhaps the Syrian regime would delay his arrest just to annoy me or prove me a liar, since it would be an opportunity for the regime to prove that I was an uninformed opposition journalist who hadn’t mastered the art of verifying his stories.
Unfortunately, the regime didn’t disappoint me. Najati Tayyara was arrested the next day, May 12 (Ayar 12), by three elements from the political security branch in the city of Homs, after the investigating judge lodged against him the two accusations now being widely used against any democratic protestor: spreading false reports and weakening national sentiment.
I’ve been expecting Najati’s arrest for years, ever since he became the Vice President of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights in Syria. So in the year 2005, days before I went to Sweden, I asked him to write me a brief biography about himself in Arabic and English.
He asked me the reason for my request, and I told him, “I expect you’ll be arrested at any moment, and I want to have accurate information so that the bureaucracies of concerned international organizations won’t get any detail wrong when it comes to demanding your release.”
Fortunately, International PEN wasn’t bureaucratic, and it released its statement concerning Najati Tayyara five days after his arrest. But after that, “the situation fell asleep,” as they say, although Najati himself is still hardly getting a good sleep.
Soon after his arrest, they transferred him to Homs Central Prison, where they put him in a group cell that includes around 350 criminal—not political—prisoners. Yes, all prisons in Syria are that crowded.
Two weeks after his arrest, three lawyers in the pay of the regime submitted a lawsuit that included additional accusations against Najati Tayyara—accusations that could lead him to the hangman’s noose. On top of that Najati is exposed to the risk of an organized assault in prison: the authorities have turned him over to one of the criminal prisoners, who has given him a violent beating, within sight and sound—and with the tacit approval—of the prison administration. This is a method that the authorities have frequently resorted to with other political prisoners in Adra Prison in Damascus, as a way to attempt to scare political prisoners or take revenge on them.
When the Al Jazeera announcer asked him about the number of protestors in Syria, which are said to be relatively few compared to Tunisia and Egypt, for example, Najati replied: Every Syrian citizen who goes out to demonstrate, amid tanks and a hail of bullets, is equal to a thousand citizens in a country that allows people to go out into the streets peacefully.
I should point out here that the number of victims of the Syrian uprising, four and a half months after it began, is now close to three thousand—that is, around three times the number of victims in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, where we didn’t see military helicopters being deployed, or cannons and tanks making their way through the streets, and smashing residential districts in a number of cities and villages.
I feel pain for my friend Najati Tayyara, and he and I both feel pain for the thousands of martyrs and approximately 14,000 detainees—a quarter of whom are counted among the missing. But I am trying to find consolation for myself in what Najati Tayyara said before his arrest, in his speech before tens of thousands thronging in al-Sa’a al-Jadida Square in Homs: “From now on, it doesn’t matter to me if I am arrested or die a martyr. Young people of the uprising, I thank you, because you have let me taste freedom after sixty years of living.”
Translation copyright 2011 by Chip Rossetti