Syria: The Sad Tale of Tal Al-Mallouhi, A Girl Imprisoned for Blogging

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As the Observer reported:

Protesters have responded [to the concessions] with a new round of chants. “We want the toppling of the regime,” said a resident of Ezraa, a small southern town that saw one of the highest death tolls on Friday. “The blood of our martyrs makes this our responsibility now.”

Two members of Syria’s parliament from Deraa, where violence first flared a month ago, also resigned in protest. The first, Nasser al-Hariri, told al-Jazeera Arabic TV, “I can’t protect my people when they get shot at, so I resign from parliament,” and he was followed, just minutes later, by Khalil al-Rifae, also from Deraa, who resigned while the TV cameras were still present.

Anyone in doubt that the Ba’athist regime in Syria is a monstrous violator of human rights should recall how the government has responded to dissent, both through the violent suppression of protest, and the imprisonment and torture of political prisoners.

In March, speaking of the former, Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, told Al-Jazeera, “The groups who have mobilized in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price — Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in the Massacre of Hama, in February 1982.” As I added, “On that dreadful occasion, the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama to suppress a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, and murdered at least 20,000 people, and possibly as many as 40,000, in an act described by the author Robin Wright as being possibly ‘the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.’”

Regarding torture, I described Syria’s role as a venue for receiving “terror suspects” seized in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” — in which Canada was also complicit — for a major UN report on secret detention that was published last year (PDF, and see here for a cross-post of the section that features Syria). This was only the most recent manifestation of a dire problem that has plagued the Syrian people for decades, examples of which can be found in the 1995 Amnesty International report, “Syria: Repression and impunity: the forgotten victims,” the 2001 report, “Syria: Torture, despair and dehumanization in Tadmur Military Prison” (PDF) a 2007 report on the arbitrary nature of sentences handed down by the Supreme State Security Court (PDF), and this report (a briefing to the UN Committee Against Torture) from 2010.

To specifically highlight the current situation in Syria, I wanted to draw readers’ attention to one event out of many that perfectly captures the repressive nature of life in Syria and the reasons why it is legitimate to regard regime change as the only viable way out of brutal, institutionlaized repression: a profile of teenage blogger Tal al-Mallouhi, who has been imprisoned for the last 16 months, and is serving a five-year sentence in solitary confinement, simply for writing a blog that expressed a teenage girl’s generalized aspirations for fairness and justice in the world. The article was written for Al-Jazeera by Michele Zackheim, a member of the Freedom to Write Committee of the PEN American Center.

Syria’s teenaged prisoners of conscience
By Michele Zackheim, Al-Jazeera, April 15, 2011

The youngest known convicted prisoner of conscience in the world is a Syrian citizen. Her name is Tal al-Mallouhi, and she has been in prison since she was seventeen years old.

And now, [sixteen months] later, it is horrifyingly obvious that Syria does not have a problem sweeping up schoolchildren and traumatising them for life.

Three weeks ago in Daraa, a fifteen-year-old, a sixteen-year-old, and thirty-eight children who are ten years old were forcibly hauled from their classrooms. They were taken to a notorious military intelligence detention centre called the Palestine Branch [aka Far Falestin].

There was news of their release, but their families have stated that the news was false. And that is not all. Last week fifteen teenagers were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on walls in Daraa.

“The people want the fall of the regime!” they wrote. They are accused of being solely responsible for igniting the turmoil in their city.

Then, in Madaya, a suburb of Damascus, the capital, four seventeen-year-olds, were arrested for spraying anti-government graffiti. They were handcuffed and taken from their classrooms. Their whereabouts are unknown.

‘A drop in the cloud’

Will these children be the newest prisoners of conscience? To provide some context, Tal al-Mallouhi’s story must be told.

On December 27, 2009, she was forced from her home by Syrian state security officials.

“She was detained,” an anonymous Syrian official said, “On the accusation of spying for a foreign country.”

Another official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, “She was accused of espionage and sending information to the American embassy in Egypt through her blog.”

What kind of information can a seventeen-year-old girl send a foreign government through a blog? What Tal had done, in fact, was to post poems and essays that focused on the suffering of the Palestinians, restrictions on freedom of expression, and her hope for peace in the Middle East.

Here is an illustration of Tal’s poetry:

You Will Remain an Example
(In reference to Gandhi)

I will walk with all walking people
And no
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by

This is my Homeland
In which
I have
A palm tree
A drop in the cloud
And a grave to protect me

Two days after Mallouhi’s arrest, state security officers raided her family’s home in Homs, about a hundred miles north of Damascus. Her computer, computer disks, notebooks, personal documents, and a mobile phone were confiscated.

Detention and diplomacy

Parents of teenagers often feel anxious when their children step out the door. But in Tal’s case, she did not even leave her house.

From the safety of her bedroom, through her blog, [in Arabic], she unintentionally created an international incident. She was dragged off to a Damascus detention centre, held incommunicado for nine months, and never charged with a crime.

After a futile attempt to see her daughter at the centre, Mallouhi’s mother, Ahed al-Mallouhi, was left in despair. She was confused and distressed, didn’t watch where she was going, and was hit by a car.

For two months she was hospitalised with serious injuries. “I’m going crazy,” she said. “I have had chronic insomnia since my daughter’s arrest. I survive on sleeping pills.”

The al-Mallouhis are a well-known Syrian family. The blogger’s grandfather, Mohammad Dia al-Mallouhi, served as the minister of state for the People’s Assembly and was also a minister under the late president Hafez al-Assad.

Her parents begged the media and human rights organisations not to interfere, as they were attempting to seek their daughter’s release through private and diplomatic negotiations.

Prisoner of conscience

On September 1, 2010, increasingly anxious that her daughter was being tortured, Mallouhi’s mother sent a direct appeal to the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad: “I plead with you to save my daughter’s life. I am not able to describe the disaster that has befallen our entire family and the amount of suffering we are going through.”

She did not mention in the letter that Mallouhi suffers from tachycardia, an abnormally accelerated heart rate that can cause a drop in blood pressure and deprive organs and tissues of oxygen.

A month later, on September 30, 2010, family members were allowed their first visit with Mallouhi at Doma Women’s Prison, some twelve miles northwest of Damascus. Dosar al-Mallouhi, her father, reported that they found her in good health. Her mother did not comment.

Almost two weeks after the visit to the prison, Tal al-Mallouhi, chained and blindfolded, was brought before the Damascus state security court in a closed session.

She was accused of “divulging information to a foreign state,” which meant high treason. The court did not offer any evidence or disclose any details of the reason for her arrest. No lawyers for the defence were present in court. Her parents were not allowed to attend.

Tal al-Mallouhi was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The verdict of the state security court is final and cannot be challenged. The schoolgirl, Tal, is in solitary confinement. She is not allowed visitors, even from her family or a lawyer.

Philip J. Crowley, former US assistant secretary of state for public affairs, wrote:

The United States strongly condemns Syria’s secret trial of blogger Tal Al-Mallouhi, calls for her immediate release, and rejects as baseless allegations of American connections that have resulted in a spurious accusation of espionage. We call on the Syrian government to immediately release all its prisoners of conscience; and allow its citizens freedom to exercise their universal rights of expression and association without fear of retribution from their own government.

But most human rights organisations have made the decision not to make contact with her family. They are afraid that state security will use this as an excuse to have other family members arrested.

Since the government has not convinced anyone that Mallouhi is a spy, these organisations fear that the Syrian government is searching for any clue or misstep they can find to support their case.

Now that the cameras of the world are focusing on Syria, the families of the children in Daraa and Madaya are throwing caution to the wind.

They are risking the fury of the government by demonstrating, by demanding the release of their children. Will Tal’s parents join the challenge to president Bashar Assad? Will the young poet’s case be revisited? How will the outrage of the world affect this new and most appalling assault on children?

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.


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