Syria: Fears grow for author of 'The New Prophets' after mystery arrest

* Ali Smith takes up case
* Photograph of Raghdah Sa'id Hassan available

Amnesty International is increasingly concerned for the fate of a Syrian novelist detained over three weeks ago.

Raghdah Sa'id Hassan, 38, author of a political love story called “The New Prophets”, was arrested on 10 February at the Al 'Arida border crossing with Lebanon. According to Syrian sources, Ms Hassan is being held at the Political Security branch in Tartus, a city on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Ms Hassan was previously detained without trial or charge for two and a half years in the early 1990s for her alleged membership of Syria’s Communist Action Party. In 1995, she was brought before the country’s Supreme State Security Court and acquitted. This experience inspired The New Prophets, her as yet unpublished first novel describing political conditions in Syria through a love story involving two prisoners.

Three days after her detention last month - on 13 February - Hassan's flat was ransacked, apparently by the security forces, and a paper print-out of The New Prophets was confiscated, as were several publications by various Syrian opposition political parties.

Award-winning short-story writer and novelist Ali Smith said:

“It is scandalous that Raghdah Hassan is being persecuted for her writing.

“To be deprived of her freedom, her home and possibly her health for expressing her ideas on paper is blatantly unjust and I implore the Syrian authorities to release her immediately.”

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“Writing a political love story shouldn’t see you thrown into a prison cell and your manuscripts seized. Syria’s Political Security officers are acting more like the paranoid censors of Ray Bradbury’s ‘Farenheit 451’ rather than a normal security service.

“Syria already has a shameful record of persecuting bloggers, journalists, democracy activists and anyone deemed a political opponent.

“It looks very much like Raghdah Hassan is being held purely for peacefully expressing her views and if so the Syrian authorities should release her immediately.”

The Syrian authorities have not given any reason for Ms Hassan's arrest or brought any charges against her, though she was questioned by Political Security on several occasions during the last three months of 2009. She was summoned to their branch in Tartus twice and they visited her twice, once in her flat and once in her second-hand clothes shop. They demanded that she sign a statement promising not to publish the novel, which she refused to do.

In detention Ms Hassan has been denied any visits from her family, a lawyer or a medical expert, despite the fact she suffers from recurrent attacks of a renal colic resulting from kidney stones. The condition causes her great pain, which requires regular intake of daily and specific antibiotics together with strong painkillers.

Generally, there is very little freedom of expression or association in Syria. Only the Ba'ath Party and some parties linked to it are officially recognised as political parties, and human rights organisations are not authorised to operate. Political activists, human rights defenders, bloggers and government critics face constant harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention.

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