Kamal Labwani Sentenced to 12 Years in Prison

Kamal Labwani convicted to 12 years in prison.  A Syrian dissident, Labwani has been jailed for 12 years in the harshest sentence against an opposition activist since Bashar al-Assad became president of Syria in 2000. Kamal Labwani, founder of the opposition Democratic Liberal Gathering in Syria, was convicted on Thursday of having contact with a foreign state "to encourage it to attack Syria." Labwani was arrested in November 2005 after holding talks with White House officials on a tour of the US and Europe. 
Read Labwani's interview with Joe Pace published on Syria Comment (August 6, 16, 21, 2005). It is excellent, lengthy, and should be read in its entirety. Here are some excerpts:
Background info:

Kamal was a member of Riad Seif's civil society forum, which formed during the famous, but short lived, Damascus Spring (2000-2001). Both were arrested at the outset of the Damascus winter in 2001. He was released from prison last summer after completing his three year sentence and has recently started a new political party–or "union" as he calls it; parties are banned. In early August, some 200 people came to his house in Zebidane to discuss the founding charter, but the police closed down an entire neighborhood to prevent people from reaching his house and they stayed there for some 14 hours. According to Kamal, they warned him that Islamists who were displeased with his Liberal Democratic Union might murder him…and of course, Syrian security is in no position to prevent such a barberous act.

The founding document is an interesting read for those who can read Arabic. Go to http://www.kamalm.com/ and click on "jideed." It is the most comprehensive, detailed charter of any opposition movement. I asked Kamal at one point why he went so far as to specify the structure of the bicameral legistlature, to which his response was, "we're preparing for the day when the regime falls. We're letting them know that we're thinking past their collapse and planning for the future. Its a type of pyschological warfare."

Could you give me the background on you’re new party? What are its guiding principles?

We have a union and not a party in the popular sense of the word. The union is based on three principles: democracy, liberalism, and secularism. The opposition is fractured and we are trying to unite it and the only thing that people are united on is those three principles.

You mentioned that you wanted you’re project to include all of the parties. How much of the opposition and the Syrian public are committed or receptive to liberalism?

I was probing society in order to determine the true magnitude of support, but it’s difficult because there is no freedom of discussion. But from my discussions, I can say that about 70% of Syrians are receptive to liberalism and maybe from a background that would make them receptive to liberalism. At the very least, 70% would be receptive and accepting of these ideas if we are able to convey them, if we are able to reach the people and dialogue with them. The political forces that exist today are ancient inheritances… They have not produced anything new. During Damascus Spring we tried to form new currents like the movement for civil society and the forums but they were crushed. The state planted its supporters in the movements and they failed.

But even among those forces that exist today, 50% are willing to leave their organizations and work with us in a new environment. And this is what’s encouraging us—getting two hundred people on board is no easy task. In a country dominated by oppression, many organizations have only five or ten real members.

The entire project? The founding document calls for civil marriages, complete equality for women including equal inheritance, and separation of religion and state. Don’t you think those points might meet with opposition amongst the religious masses?

I think that 50% of society—i.e. the women—will endorse these ideas because they have a direct interest. No one refuses a right that is offered to them. None of them are going to refuse equal inheritance. I’m speaking about the women because they are oppressed; you’re speaking about the men. Nonetheless, I suspect half the men would endorse these ideas and if half the men and all the women do, we have 75% support.

In terms of the secular component, everybody is beginning to recognize the need for a separation of religion and state after witnessing the terrible events in Iraq and Lebanon. Otherwise we will be divided along sectarian lines because we are a country of many sects and ethnicities.

And when we say that the religious figures shouldn’t be in power we don’t want to promote atheism or undermine religion.

Pace: You say that people recognize the need for secularism. How do you reconcile that with what appears to be an Islamic resurgence in Syria?

Labwani: The Islamic resurgence is happening for several reasons. One part of the resurgence is a protest to despotism. Another is a protest to sectarian discrimination because the regime is sectarian. Another is a response to the failure of Marxist and Nasserist ideologies. But this resurgence is not antagonistic to our project. We are not the antithesis of the resurgence; on the contrary, we want to absorb it into our project. We are able to do this—we have met with many devout people and they accepted the project. I think that a lot of those people that you are talking about consider religion a source of morals and values. They will be with us, not on the other side. It was originally part of my idea to bring them into this project, to find mutual interests and find the values shared by Islam and modern liberalism. This political and cultural project is extremely important and I will focus much of my efforts on this point.

Without this project it will never be possible to rid ourselves of cultural and intellectual backwardness that constitutes the groundwork for terrorism and extremism. This is the essence of the project: bringing these sorts of groups into the political arena where they are part of civilization and respect other viewpoints. Even Europe couldn’t advance until Christianity underwent a transformative reformation. In Europe, the Christians were responsible for the Inquisition and countless executions prior to the advent of liberalism. If we can reconcile Islam and liberalism, Islam will be more urbane, tolerant, and averse to violence.

We’ve been unjustly frightened by them. They are ready to endorse these acceptable things. Those who are extremists stake out a radical position because they have been wronged and deprived of everything.

What sort of complaints, apprehensions, or demands have the religious groups you’ve met with displayed in response to the founding charter?

They have accepted that the government should not be religious in character and that the president be elected irrespective of his religion. They have accepted that the parliament will be the source of legislation, not the Qur’an. They have deep convictions about the authority of the Qur’an, but they don’t want to impose it on people because we have other religions in Syria like Christianity. Even the Muslim Brotherhood—its leader, Bayanuni said that the Qur’an is to them the source of legislation, but they would not impose it in any constitution.

Of course, there are people who oppose secularism. This secular regime has brutally oppressed those sorts of people, so they are against secularism as part of their opposition to the current regime. But once we achieve a secular democracy that ensures the right of expression, the right to participate in politics, civil rights, provides work opportunities, etc—I think that they will defend this system, not fight it. The greatest mistake was the marriage of despotism and secularism because opposition to this regime—to many people, at least—entails opposition to secularism.

Having an assembly is one thing, but how can you pressure the regime to even listen to your demands? Does foreign pressure have a role in implementing your agenda?

The strategy is to dislodge the regime. The regime is very weak, but the power of society is even weaker. Our confrontation with the authorities will be symbolic: we will violate every taboo and cross every red line that they have drawn. We have recently reached a stage in which we can expand the opposition’s activities and speak about almost whatever we wish with the press without fear. We have surpassed that prohibition, at least. We’re trying to reach the street, but on that issue they are still playing games with us.

We are trying to create a framework for a new form of government and the regime is afraid of this; this is why it has returned to its use of oppressive tactics like refusing to let people meet in their own houses. It will cease to be effective in the foreseeable future because we expect one of the following: either a spontaneous, violent reaction from the street like what happened in Qamashli, or international pressures, or even events within the regime. This is the sort of regime where if you apply pressure on it, its inner elements will prove incapable of cooperating with one another and it will implode. So the combination of foreign pressure and social pressure along with the internal congestion this regime suffers from will open up an avenue for change. We can’t say exactly where the avenue will open up; it’s like putting pressure on a water bottle. 

What’s the role of foreign powers in assisting reform?

The foreign role is very important. We cannot overcome this crisis peacefully without international guarantees. Foreign pressure is decisive—it will determine whether Syria is marred by chaos or whether it undergoes a peaceful transition of power. And this role will be important for at least ten years to come because at present we are incapable of forming a complete awareness that incorporates all of the movements. So I think that the sincere Syrians internally should work with sincere external powers to help Syria transition from despotism to democracy. The absence of either side will doom this project.

Specifically, what sort of foreign pressures do you advocate?

All sorts of pressures. Unfortunately, economic pressures would be felt by the people because the regime is shielded by its corruption. Military pressure is dangerous but possible if it focused solely on the symbols of the regime. The most important thing is that the pressure be applied directly to those in power.

How do you apply pressure on the regime without negatively impacting the people?

The names of every person who violates human rights, like officers, should be put on a blacklist along with the symbols of corruption. And their assets should be tracked down. This is legal, natural, and part of the job of the international community. Any person who violates human rights should be tried in an international court, which we should be able to appeal to. The United Nations is entitled by law to interfere with a country’s internal affairs to combat oppression and servitude. Dictatorship is the last form of servitude.

Diplomatic isolation is another option; diplomatic relations should be conditioned on respect for human rights. The European Union is trying to get its economic agreement passed with Syria in order to save this regime from American pressures and they have not stipulated clear conditions regarding human rights. So perhaps the international community can place enough moral pressure on the regime to prompt change. Everyone saw in Lebanon how the United Nations managed to quickly achieve an agenda that the Lebanese themselves were incapable of for years. The Syrian army immediately withdrew and they held elections. But right now there isn’t any real pressure being placed on Syria, especially from the European front.

There’s a difference between pressures placed on the regime—i.e. penalties imposed when it violates human rights—and direct assistance to the opposition—i.e. material or organizational support. What sort of the latter do you want from the international community?

The first thing is monitoring the regime’s behavior and highlighting its infractions in the press. The press would provide us a forum to reach the people which is very important because the oppression here prohibits us from transmitting our ideas to the street. The foreign press is much more capable and its use will strengthen us.

The second form of assistance is material support—relationships with the embassies, with international organizations, help in publishing and disseminating, etc. Maybe we could reach a stage where we received financial support, though this is dangerous because it could corrupt the organizations. If we did accept money it would have to be public, transparent, and with the knowledge of the regime.

I think those three things—the pressure, the press support, and material support—would be enough to turn the opposition into a significant force in society. And the combination of those three would drastically facilitate the dislodging of this regime.

What are you’re thoughts on the Syrian opposition in America, such as Farid Ghadry’s party [Syrian Reform Party]?

In politics, everyone tried to preserve their own interests and they have a right to pursue their interests. But they are different from us—their circumstances and their demands differ. We are living inside the country so our demands are oriented towards internal affairs. They are interesting in being able to come and go freely and in investing. They may be duplicitous because they have two different loyalties—one to Syria and one to America. We might be able to work together and they might be able to help us, especially if they can influence US decision making and we would be willing to welcome them, but on the condition that the program comes from the inside.

Does Farid Ghadry’s party have any base or support in Syria?

None whatsoever. He doesn’t have anyone inside the country and anyone who did cooperate with him would be accused of treason and arrested. His party has called for military invasion of Syria, so nobody is going to work with him. 

What do you think is the real purpose of America’s project to remake the region?

I think that America wants to make important changes in the region, especially towards democracy. But they are no longer able to present any evidence to convince people that they are serious in their desire to promote democracy.

If America wants to convince people that it’s serious about its desire to promote democracy, democracy needs to be its first priority. Their first demand cannot be Iraq, followed by Israel, followed by Lebanon when 18 million people are suffering inside of Syria. The US presents 15 demands and not a single one has anything to do with the internal situation. The first, second, third, fourth, and fifth demands need to be directed towards internal politics.

You cannot expect the people to be allies in your efforts to fight terrorism when you are supported the foul acts of the regimes that you have supported for 40 years. I cannot forget who America counts as its allies—Mubarak’s regime, the Hashemites in Jordan, and even the Syria regime, which, in many regards, is an ally of America. If American doesn’t change its policy, people are going to remain skeptical.

The only way for America to regain its credibility is to change its policy and to demonstrate that it is interested in and cognizant of the afflictions that the Syrians are suffering from. Syrians need to see official statements to this end.

Is the US embassy doing anything to support civil society or dissidents in Syria?

Not at all. The group that is working on that agenda is extremely weak. They deal with us through a single person who barely speaks Arabic and is incapable of initiating anything. Basically, all they do is jot down notes on the latest news of the opposition, the sort of news that they could just as easily obtain from a newspaper. They have demonstrated no willingness to coordinate or cooperate with the elements of civil society. The US is not counting on the opposition to play any internal role.

Syria has been left out of the US’s agenda to promote democracy in the region—the US hasn’t exerted pressure on the regime to respect human rights nor has it given any funding from the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to Syrian civil society. Why do you think Syria is the exception?

Maybe they are afraid that if they give people money, they will expose them to danger. There is a law that sentences people to a minimum of three years for accepting foreign money and the emergency law imposes the death penalty for such an offense. Maybe the Americans are afraid of subjecting someone to that sort of punishment.

Some opposition figures say that moral support from America would actually undermine their credibility by enabling the regime to dismiss them as traitors. Do you think moral support from America is potentially counter-productive?

It would make sense to call me a traitor if I was from the outside, but I spent my entire life here and I don’t need a certificate of good behavior. If I was to cooperate with the Americans and benefited from its pressures it would be for the popular interest and no one would accuse me of being an American agent. I want the American pressures to increase because we profit from them. It’s only natural that we would look to the superpowers of our day to help motivate change.

We cannot deny that American foreign policy has undergone tremendous changes in the aftermath of September 11. We have recognized those changes but the people still have not. I am prepared to work with the international community for the sake of bringing democracy to America and this is not something that warrants accusations—on the contrary, it will enhance our power to serve the people’s interests.

How did the Lebanon withdrawal impact the opposition and the credibility of the regime? Did it encourage people to mobilize?

The withdrawal influenced people morally but that wasn’t reflected materially because the regime began to clamp down even more internally to compensate for its loss of Lebanon.

How did the Iraq war impact the opposition?

There were two divergent effects. In the beginning, the fall of Saddam had a huge effect and gave people hope. But when the situation in Iraq deteriorated, it had the opposite effect: people began to fear for the future. Even when the greatest powers intervened in Iraq they were unable to achieve stability, which indicates a real problem.

This society doesn’t understand that there is another force intent on ensuring instability in Iraq. The whole world is conspiring against the Iraqi people to foster instability so that the American project fails—all of Iraq’s neighbors and even some of America’s allies. Even the Europeans are contributing to this. For this reason, the Iraqi people are paying a tremendous price. And this left a negative mark on the Syrian opposition.

Some people contend that the West has much to fear from democracy in the Arab world because the Islamists would win. How do you address this concern?

That concern is exaggerated because elections aren’t going to occur tomorrow. Elections are the last, not the first step, in the transition to democracy. The first step is freedom of speech and political parties and only when there is an informed public opinion will there be elections. But that requires a year or two. In that time period, the Islamist parties will not dominate; if you give us freedom, you have nothing to fear from the ballot box. 

Comments (7)

Bakri said:

Dr Landis if you were Syrian ,what would be your reaction to such agression by a sectarian familly regime against the best sons of our nation?.Do u know an another country in the world which imprison people of this quality ?Anyway History will curse them for ever…

May 10th, 2007, 4:52 pm


Bakri said:

Dr Landis if you were Syrian ,what would be your reaction to such agression by a sectarian familly regime against the best sons of our nation?.Do u know an another country in the world which imprison people of this quality ?Anyway History will curse them for ever…

May 10th, 2007, 4:53 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

The whole world is conspiring against the Iraqi people to foster instability so that the American project fails—
this is wrong.
instability in Iraq is due to the absences of strong central goverment which has enough power to control the people,USA forces is preventing such goverment,the army has no artillery,planes rockets,and well trained personels, USA is afraid to build such army,it will be dangerous to USA troops, so they have to withdraw before this is accomplished, and that will cause american defeat.
the american mission in Iraq was wrong in every aspect,and defeat is written from the first day of invasion,Bush arrogance and his previous wrong policies are leading USA to a humiliating defeat.

on another subject;
Bashar today said he is not going to work with the tribunal,regarding Hariri murder, who has more power? state sovereignty,or UNSC?, his behavior will lead to punitive resolutions, only the syrian people will pay for, he knows what is coming, this will cost him , UNSC will adopt resolutions to force him to comply, and internally the people will get tired of supporting him.
wise leaders are great asset to their countries,wisdom is rarely an attribute of young leader.

May 10th, 2007, 5:14 pm


Observer said:

Who are these people? 99.99% of the Syrian people do not even know who these people are. The only person they know to have switched sides is Khaddam and that is because in his previous post he truly abused his position of power; and now seems to think that he will return a la Chalabi to take power again. The system is based on a security apparatus through and through and the only change that is possible is either an outside invasion or a local mass revolt.

May 10th, 2007, 5:54 pm


souri said:

Yes, Dr Landis if you are Syrian do you say
Bilrouh Bildam Nafdika ya Bashar.
Question to Alex and Imad Moustafa
Do you agree that Bashar should stay lilabad…..

May 10th, 2007, 9:38 pm


tony said:

to “observer”
are you for real?

May 11th, 2007, 12:51 pm


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