Syria Detains Activist Who Had Visited U.S.

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Syrian security forces detained a human rights activist at the Damascus airport Sunday as he returned from a visit to the United States and France, and are holding him at a military detention facility in the Syrian capital, U.S. government officials and human rights groups reported yesterday.

The action against Ammar Qurabi, a 35-year-old dentist who serves as spokesman for an unauthorized human rights group in Syria, comes amid rising concern about a renewed crackdown on dissent by Syrian authorities that is said to have begun last year. The State Department's annual human rights report, released this month, reported an increase in arbitrary arrests over the past year, and international groups also have documented a toughening of Syrian measures aimed at harassing, intimidating and punishing critics of President Bashar Assad's government.

Qurabi, who represents the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, had left Syria in January, associates said. He spent more than a month in the United States, attending a conference on Syria, meeting with other Syrian activists and giving a talk here sponsored by the Hudson Institute. Late last week, he flew to Paris to attend another conference on Syria organized by the Aspen Institute, then headed back to Damascus.

He was taken into custody at the Damascus airport and was moved to an interrogation facility known as the Palestine Branch and run by Syrian military intelligence, according to relatives. They said Qurabi was able to make a brief phone call to a friend after arriving at the facility.

"No one knows the reason" he was detained, said Bahia Mardeeny, Qurabi's wife, a journalist who did not return to Syria with her husband and is now in Washington. She noted that other Syrians who attended the same conferences as her husband had returned to Syria without incident.

She and others said Qurabi had not been worried about getting arrested on his return. Rather, he had joked as recently as Saturday about whether he would be allowed to travel abroad again.

Several U.S. human rights activists said there has been no evident pattern to many of the Syrian detentions in recent months, with some of those detained getting released and others being charged under laws prohibiting criticism of the president and security services.

"We see Qurabi's detention as an effort by Syrian authorities to punish activists who are becoming more vocal," said Nadim Houry, a Middle East specialist at Human Rights Watch. "It already is having a chilling effect. News of his detention has spread in Syria's activist community, and people are afraid they might be arrested if they leave and then come back."

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued statements yesterday appealing for Qurabi's release. The State Department, which last month announced it would be making available $8 million in grants to promote greater freedom in Syria, was preparing a statement for release, probably today.

"It will say the United States deplores the atmosphere of fear that's being fostered by the Syrian authorities," a department spokesman said.

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