Prominent Syrian human rights lawyer and activist Haitham Al-Maleh turned 80 on Sunday — in very poor health and in a Syrian detention centre.
I first heard about al-Maleh when I was working on Maher Arar’s case back in 2003, and he was doing all he could do to help. Arar’s was an unusual case — the world’s media doesn’t usually pay much attention to political detainees in Syria.
Years later I phoned al-Maleh to interview him for my book. I remember being surprised by how upbeat, funny and friendly he was.
When I asked if he was worried about the consequences of talking with me on the phone he laughed — a genuine belly laugh — he apparently found it amusing that I thought he would consider not speaking out. It’s just what he has always done, he said.
He explained to me how the human rights situation had worsened since Western nations had used Syrian authorities to torture their terror suspects. Syrian authorities, apparently emboldened by this nod of approval for their torture tactics, were cracking down on human rights defenders, and having to expand detention centres in order to accommodate an influx of new political prisoners.
When I spoke with al-Maleh he was barred from leaving the country. Now he’s suffering much harsher consequences of Syria’s deteriorating human rights conditions.
Arbitrarily detained (ie. kidnapped) by Syrian authorities last October, Al-Maleh was sentenced to three years this July for criticizing Syrian officials, their control over the judicial system and their continued use of emergency laws. Or, as Syrian authorities put it: “publishing false information that could weaken national morale.”
As al-Maleh has often pointed out himself, Syrian authorities regularly use vaguely worded charges like these to detain, prosecute and silence their critics.
His detention and the sentence have been condemned by human rights groups in Syria and around the world.
Al-Maleh, a diabetic with with other health issues, was denied his medicine when first detained. His health has deteriorated in poor detention conditions. And like all those detained in Syria, he remains at constant risk of mistreatment and torture.
So I’m going to mark Haitham al-Maleh’s birthday by writing to the Syrian president and adding my voice to the many calling for his unconditional and immediate release.
You can too. For more information see this August 13 report from Human Rights Watch, and what the International Federation for Human Rights and Amnesty International had to say about al-Maleh’s sentence. For who to write to where, see this urgent action from Amnesty International.