Syria Frees 5 Political Activists

By Rhonda Roumani
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 19, 2006

DAMASCUS, Syria, Jan. 18 -- The government freed five prominent prisoners Wednesday, including a former parliamentary leader and activist who quickly announced that he would form a new political party in the hope of opening the way for immediate democratic change.

Riad Seif, one of the country's boldest and most charismatic opposition figures, was arrested in 2001 along with nine other activists in a crackdown on democracy forums that emerged shortly after President Bashar Assad came to power in 2000. The forums marked a period of ferment dubbed the Damascus Spring, in which Syrians gathered freely for the first time in decades to demand greater democracy and an end to corruption.

On Wednesday, without advance notice, the government freed Seif along with another parliament member, Mamoun Homsi, and opposition figures Walid Bunni, Habib Issa and Fawaz Tello. Each had been sentenced to five years in prison for violating the constitution and inciting sectarian strife. They were released seven months before their terms ended.

"We have arrived at the point where we really have to change," Seif said after his release. "There is no way to continue as it is now. We want to build, as soon as possible, democracy in Syria, because that is the only way to save the country and to avoid catastrophe."

The release of the activists was seen by many as an attempt to rally Syrians behind a beleaguered government that has come under intense international pressure over a U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri almost a year ago. Many Lebanese and other foreign leaders have blamed Hariri's killing on Syria, which subsequently withdrew thousands of troops that had been stationed in Lebanon since 1976.

Seif, 60, could become a unifying presence in Syria's fragmented political opposition. In October, while in prison, he signed his name to the Damascus Declaration, a statement released by various opposition figures, including religious leaders, demanding broad democratic change. And unlike Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, who announced this month that he would form an opposition government-in-exile, Seif is not tainted by accusations of corruption but rather is known on the streets of Damascus as an honest businessman who treats employees with unusual generosity.

Several hours after his release, at his home in Sahnayya, a working-class neighborhood outside Damascus, Seif said: "The Damascus Spring was a hope in our movement toward democracy. They thought they killed this hope. They delayed it. They made [the movement] stronger. Democracy is coming anyway."

In an adjacent room, about 30 family members and opposition figures -- many of them former prisoners -- filed in to welcome Seif home. Phones rang nonstop as family and friends called to hear whether the news was true and to offer congratulations.

Apart from a few extra gray hairs, Seif did not look like someone just released from Syria's infamous Adra prison, just outside of Damascus. He suggested that perhaps prison time "was necessary for me to build myself up to be able to give more to these people that I really love."

Seif said he and some friends have committed to forming a "new liberal party," which he hopes will attract young Syrians by being completely transparent.

Since 1963, Syria has been dominated by the Baath Party, which heads the National Progressive Front, a coalition of nine other legal parties. In June, a Baath Party congress recommended that the government adopt a law that would allow creation of non-ethnic and non-religious political parties, but such a law has yet to be passed.

Seif also stressed the need for Syria to mend ties with the rest of the world, particularly the "nations that have technology and money."

"It is stupid to make enemies of them," said Seif, referring to the current tensions between Syria and many Western countries. "We want to learn, and we want our friends to help us build a nice and happy society.

"We want to involve as large a part of the society as possible in politics and to let everybody understand that they must do something," Seif said. "I don't think the Syrian government would like us to be successful. Of course, they will try their best to stop what we are hoping to do. They don't have a free hand to stop democracy. We cannot wait for the green light from the regime if they don't wish for us to move toward democracy. We paid the price. We are willing to pay more."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company