'You will get the death penalty too': Syria’s attempt to stop overseas protest

We’re sadly used to the idea that the Syrian security forces will apparently stop at nothing to crush peaceful protests in places like Homs, Dera’a, Hama or Aleppo, but what about in Washington? Or Madrid? Or London?

Yet that’s what they’re doing (see this new Amnesty report). Syrian embassy staff in these and other countries are photographing ex-pat Syrian protestors; inviting them through the doors for sinister “chats”; letting them see that they’ve got files on them, Facebook accounts opened up and online names noted down.

And they’re also apparently tipping off the intelligence services back in Syria. Take this example from the US. The 34-year-old pianist and composer Malek Jandali, originally from Homs but resident in the US since winning a scholarship in 1994, played piano at a pro-reform demo in Washington on 23 July. At the event protestors sang and chanted things like “Wahid, wahid, wahid, al-sha’b al-souri wahid” (One, one, one, the Syrian people are one) and “Allah, souriye, hourriye wa bas” (God, Syria, freedom – that’s all) (see this YouTube video).

Four days later, back in Homs, his parents were both attacked at their home. Malek’s 66-year-old mother was actually in bed when the three attackers forced their way into the flat having overpowered Malek’s father Mamoun (pictured) out in the street. Both of Malek’s parents were beaten up, the flat was trashed and money was stolen. They were told: “This is what happens when your son mocks the government.”

Like something from a cheap Cold War thriller, this attack in Homs had apparently involved the street lighting being temporarily cut and a large lorry noisily driving by at the exact moment that the first assailant grabbed Malek’s father outside the flat. It sounds very much like something that Syria’s well-resourced intelligence services (the Mukhabaraat) would have done.

This is going on in Britain as well. One Syrian called Mahmoud (originally from Dera’a) says that after a demo outside the embassy in London on 2 April he was phoned (not for the first time) by someone from the embassy who said: “You are with the Israelis and the Muslim Brotherhood and so will get the death penalty too.” A few days later Mahmoud’s brother was detained by the Mukhabaraat in Dera’a. Luckily he was quickly released, unlike the 100 or so other detainees who’ve died in custody this year in Syria.

We know from the Yvonne Gilford case and others (ones relating to Iran for example) that foreign embassy staff in London can be hostile to either their hosts or to people from their own countries. Yet it’s still chilling to think of Syrian officials in plush, leafy Belgrave Square in central London bristling with hatred for democracy protestors.

But they thrive on intimidation and need facing down. Tomorrow morning a courageous group of Syrian pro-reformers are going to Belgrave Square to show their defiance. They’ll be right outside the embassy with placards saying “I am not afraid”, as well as their names and home towns clearly displayed. I’ll be there as well. I’ll report back afterwards.

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