(Originally published at Egypt Reports.net)
Renowned Syrian human rights lawyer Haitham al-Maleh recently visited Cairo as part of a tour of the Middle East and Europe to meet with human rights groups and NGOs and to call on governments to condemn the Assad regime. Maleh, 81, has spent most of his life fighting against government oppression in Syria. I sat down with him and his son, Iyas, in the lobby of their hotel in Dokki for a lengthy conversation about the current Syria and Maleh’s fascinating life story.
In December 2003, Maleh delivered a speech before the German parliament on the human rights situation in Syria. In it, he called the Assad regime “a fascist dictatorship.” When he returned home, the authorities imposed a travel ban on him and he was prevented from leaving the county for the next seven years. During this period, he was subjected to repeated government intimidation and harassment. His law office was attacked three times and his windows smashed by regime forces. The street leading to his office would periodically be closed by dozens of high-ranking police and members of the intelligence services. His clients would be harassed and told to find another attorney. “I was under a lot of pressure,” Maleh says. “It was a kind of terror against me, against my customers.
Undaunted, Maleh continued to publicly criticize the Syrian government, denouncing the continued state of emergency and the lack of judicial independence. On October 14, 2009, he was arrested and brought before a military court. In July 2010, at the age of 79, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “undermining national sentiment” and “spreading false news that could weaken national morale.” Amnesty International called him “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association.”
Maleh was suffering diabetes and thyroid problems, and his health deteriorated in prison to the point where he spent a month and a half without being able to walk. On March 8, 2011, he was released, after Assad—in the midst of a wave of uprisings across the Arab world—declared an amnesty for prisoners over 70 years old and those convicted of minor crimes.
Within thirty minutes of returning home, Maleh began to publicly criticize the regime, calling in interviews with global media for reforms and for the release of all political prisoners. One week later, on March 15, the Syrian uprising began.