June 02, 2006
Syria: A Tie that Binds
BY Stephen Talbot
In early 2005, Steve Talbot and correspondent Kate Seelye reported from Syria and Lebanon on mounting tensions between the two countries following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The tie is hanging in my closet. Its distinctive pattern reminds me of tiles in an Arab mosaic.
The tie once belonged to a Syrian human rights lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, who was wearing it when reporter Kate Seelye and I interviewed him last year in Damascus for FRONTLINE/World. When I mentioned casually that I liked the design, Bunni, a trim, dark-haired, energetic man, instantly removed the tie and gave it to me.
I was embarrassed. We had come at an awkward time. Bunni, a longtime opponent of the Syrian regime, was packing up boxes and closing down his law office. He could no longer pay the rent. He knew he might be arrested at any moment. The last thing I wanted to do was take his tie. But he insisted.
"Accept it, he wants you to have it," whispered Seelye. "You'll insult him if you say no."
I had no choice really. I thanked him profusely. He smiled broadly. We shook hands and parted company.
Last week he was arrested.
The Syrian government rounded up half a dozen outspoken critics, including Michel Kilo, a prominent reformer and writer, and Mr. Bunni, a brave and indefatigable attorney.
The Syrian government rounded up half a dozen outspoken critics, including Michel Kilo, a prominent reformer and writer, and Mr. Bunni, a brave and indefatigable attorney. Their crime? Signing a petition calling for better relations between Syria and Lebanon, promoting democracy, and urging a full investigation of who assassinated Lebanon's former prime minister Rafik Hariri. They were charged with disrespecting the state.
"Arresting respected critics like Anwar al-Bunni and Michael Kilo shows that the Syrian government has no interest in peaceful, homegrown reform," declared Human Rights Watch.
Bunni was running a legal office sponsored by the European Union until the Syrian government shut it down earlier this year. The EU is urging his release along with that of other Syrian prisoners of conscience who have been arrested in a disturbing government crackdown over the past several months.
When Seelye and I met with Bunni last year, Syrian troops had just been compelled to withdraw from Lebanon, ending an occupation of nearly 30 years, following the car bombing of Hariri, a popular leader whose murder the Syrians are widely suspected of orchestrating. Despite the upheaval in Lebanon, when we arrived in Damascus, things were calm, at least outwardly. But insiders confided that the government felt deeply threatened by the ongoing U.N. investigation into the assassination. A preliminary U.N. report has accused Syria of involvement in the Hariri killing.
"Fear is pervasive in Syria," Bunni told us. He said that hopes for change flickered briefly during the "Damascus Spring" in 2001 when the then new president, Bashar al-Assad, began to ease up on the authoritarian rule his late father, Hafez al-Assad, had imposed for decades. But Bashar's reforms were tentative and short-lived. Bunni has spent countless hours defending dissidents who dared to challenge the regime. When we asked if he felt personally threatened, he shrugged and said, "I wouldn't be the first family member to go to prison."
What struck me at the time -- and what is so painful to recall now -- is how hopeful Bunni seemed."I am optimistic," he declared. "Democracy is the solution to all our problems."
But what struck me at the time -- and what is so painful to recall now -- is how hopeful Bunni seemed, despite the repressive atmosphere. After acknowledging how disorganized and fragile the opposition to the government was, Bunni nevertheless proclaimed, "I am optimistic." He was full of energy. "Democracy," he declared, "is the solution to all our problems."
Encouraged by the upsurge in popular protest in neighboring Lebanon, Bunni hoped that Syrians could break through their barrier of fear. He said his immediate goals were to push for the abolition of Syria's draconian emergency law and to bring ordinary citizens back into political life. He regretted that the Bush administration had lost credibility among Arabs as a defender of democracy. "No one thinks the U.S. really wants democracy," he said.
Men like Anwar al-Bunni are determined to press for democracy in the Middle East regardless of how formidable and intractable their repressive governments appear to be, and regardless of how little encouragement they receive from the outside world. But having met him, it's impossible for me to forget Bunni or ignore his plight. Maybe he knew that when he gave me his tie.
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To revisit our broadcast story, "Lebanon: The Earthquake," you can watch a streamed version of the show on our Web site. (We recommend you watch using QuickTime "hi" for the best results.)