Ahmad Biasi: the man who exposed Syrian regime’s lies

Ahmad Biasi risked his life to expose Syrian lies

Originally published in the Independent, 23 May 2011

In most countries it would have been inconsequential. But for Ahmad Biasi, a young man from a small town in north-west Syria, the simple act of filming himself in his home town captivated the Syrian protest movement, made him a symbol of the nationwide insurrection – and may have put his life in danger.

It began when he was filmed in a video uploaded onto YouTube last month. Just days before, another film had been broadcast on news networks around the world, purportedly showing Kalashnikov-waving security forces beating and stamping on prisoners who had been captured in the town of Al-Bayda, close to Banias in north-western Syria. Ahmad Biasi had been among those being beaten and kicked by gun-toting security men in the original video.

The government responded by saying the video had been faked, that the uniforms of the security men were not right, and that the film had probably been shot in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Presumably incensed by the lie, Ahmad Biasi set out to prove that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been as brutal as the video seemed to show. Using a mobile phone, he and his friends shot a long sequence of film which started by driving past the entry sign to Al-Bayda and continued with footage from the clearly recognisable town square where all the prisoners were held and beaten.

In an amazing act of bravery – an act which has amassed him a devoted Facebook following – he finished the video by standing in front of the camera and holding up his national ID card, thus proving to the world that he was the Syrian national in the original video.

But his bravery came at a terrible cost. Earlier this month, Ahmad was arrested by one of Syria’s most feared intelligence units. Human-rights activists – who received reports last week that he had died under torture – told The Independent that had been held in a secret-service headquarters in Damascus.

Before the weekend started, many people in Syria thought that Ahmad Biasi was dead. Human-rights organisations were receiving reports that he had suffered a terrifying final few hours at the hands of Syria’s secret police.

By Saturday night, it transpired he was very much alive and had given an interview to state television offering proof to that effect. “We know he was detained and taken by security,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Syrian human-rights organisation Insan. “He was humiliated in front of other prisoners. They urinated on him and he lost consciousness after being electrocuted. He was very badly tortured. They made him an example to the others and made other prisoners watch as he was being tortured.”

According to Mr Tarif, the types of abuse used by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – the notorious branch of the secret police believed to have taken Ahmad – include electrocution, nail extraction and genital mutilation. “The level of brutality they are using is just absurd,” Mr Tarif added. “It is so inhuman.”

Other human-rights organisations also received reports of Ahmad’s death. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, residents in Al-Bayda had feared that “Ahmad may have died after being subjected to severe torture”.

Then on Saturday night, possibly under pressure from the growing publicity surrounding his case, Syrian state television dropped a happy bombshell. It ran an interview showing Ahmad Biasi sitting on a leather chair in a blank room expressing his “surprise” at hearing about his own death.

Looking gaunt but otherwise healthy, he said: “I was home when I heard that I had died under torture in a prison. I was very surprised and I felt strange when I saw it on the news. I wondered how they broadcast such fake news. It is humiliating.”

Yet in spite of the dramatic turn of events, news of Ahmad’s fate may turn out to harm the Syrian regime more than it had anticipated when it released the footage. Activists have already accused the secret police of extracting a forced confession, while others are saying that the interview has inadvertently done what Ahmad intended to do in the first place: prove that he was Syrian and that the original video of government abuse did not take place in Iraq.

“He is now a hero of truth for protesters,” said a Syrian journalist from a small town outside Damascus. “The thing is that national television has proved that this video took a place in Syria. They proved how stupid they are.”

His plight is also gaining online attention from growing numbers of people inside and outside Syria who view the activist’s case as something of a cause célèbre – a rallying point for a nation in tumult.

Thousands of people have joined Facebook pages which have been set up in solidarity with Ahmad, while his case has attracted a small but growing following on Twitter.

Despite saying earlier in the year that he thought his country was impervious to the revolts shaking the Arab world, President Bashar al-Assad is now battling to contain a nationwide insurrection which began in the southern city of Deraa and has since spread to other major cities.

On Saturday, at least 11 people were killed in Homs when security forces opened fire on a funeral. The violence came a day after 44 people were killed in demonstrations around the country, according to the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights. Rights groups say 850 activists have died and many thousands have been arrested and tortured since the uprising began.

The final indignity

Hosni Mubaraks fall from grace has been spectacular

Originally published in the Independent, April 14, 2011

At the height of the Egyptian uprising, when the crowds in central Cairo were hanging effigies of their president in Tahrir Square, a defiant Hosni Mubarak declared: “I will not leave Egypt or depart it until I am buried in the ground.”

After Egypt’s prosecutor general yesterday ordered that the deposed president be detained for 15 days pending charges of corruption, Mr Mubarak may be wishing he had fled his former dominion while he still had the chance.

The man who ruled his country with an iron fist for three decades is now being held and questioned over alleged abuses of power during his rule and over the deaths of protesters.

Mr Mubarak’s sons, Gamal and Alaa, have also been detained over allegations of corruption. They are being held in a prison near Cairo after being whisked away in a police van from the family home in Sharm el Sheikh under a hail of stones and bottles from angry onlookers. Mr Mubarak’s whereabouts are unknown but, according to state television, all three will appear for questioning in a Cairo court on Tuesday.

News of his detention, coming after a weekend of bloody clashes between the army and pro-democracy demonstrators, was warmly welcomed by Egyptian activists. The blogger Wael Khalil said the move was “a step forward” and that “the revolution cannot now be turned back”. “The people are calling the shots. They are dismantling the regime piece by piece and the army is their instrument for doing that,” he added.

The week leading up to yesterday’s announcement had been marred by violent confrontations around Tahrir Square in central Cairo. A large rally on Friday – aimed at putting pressure on the ruling military council to speed-up the prosecution of former officials – descended into violence when the army fired bullets and tear gas to clear activists who had defied the 2am Saturday curfew. At least one person was shot dead during the clashes.

But on Sunday, the prosecutor general ordered that Mr Mubarak be questioned on a range of charges, including the alleged orchestration of violence during the 18 days leading up to his ousting. He reportedly suffered a heart attack while being questioned on Tuesday night, but doctors have now confirmed he is healthy enough for prosecutors to continue their probe.

Many believe the decision to detain Mr Mubarak is no coincidence as it comes on the heels of mounting criticism of the army’s performance in government. Mohamed Fouad Gadalla, a judge and vice-president of Egypt’s State Council, said he believed the ruling military council pressured the public prosecutor to pursue Mr Mubarak and his family. “The army are doing this now because if they don’t take any strong action against Hosni Mubarak, then the people will march to Tahrir Square again,” he said.

Though no prosecutions have yet been completed, the detention of Mr Mubarak has come as a shock in a region where heads of state are not used to being brought to heel. “It’s rare,” said Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East expert from Chatham House. “I suppose the only similar recent example is Saddam Hussein… [Mubarak] was always taking a risk by remaining in Egypt.”

The price of freedom

Gameel Hussein

Originally published at  almasryalyoum.com, March 7, 2011

Naeema Abdel Mageed Sharaf sat cross-legged on the bed cradling her seven-week-old grand-daughter.

“My son was so happy when Fatima was born,” she said, her eyes swelling with grief. “He hoped to make everything for her.”

But tragically he never got the chance. Just 17 days after Fatima was born, Gameel Hussein was stabbed to death by pro-Mubarak thugs on his way to work last month.

Gameel and his 28-year-old wife, Walaa, had been trying for a child since they got married a decade ago. Their first, a baby girl, died just a week after she was born two years ago.

Fatima was their dream-come-true.

“He wanted to make his family happy,” said 56-year-old Naeema, speaking in the cramped, lime-green living room of the family house in Ayrout Basous, a village in Qanatir al-Khayriyah, northern Cairo. “But his dreams weren’t achieved. He didn’t realize them.”

On the morning of 4 February at around 10AM, Gameel, 36, was confronted by a gang of tens of thugs as he made his way into work along with his cousin, Sameh.

Gameel worked as a security guard for a branch of the Commercial International Bank. Unfortunately for him, the bank was located in downtown Cairo, where tens of thousands of demonstrators were at that time camped-out in Tahrir Square calling for the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak.

According to his family, Gameel supported the protests. “He was happy with what was happening. It was a revolution against the system and people were fed up with the oppression,” said his cousin Saeed Mohamed Abu Sabeh.

He also visited Tahrir Square during the demonstrations – but only once, according to his 28-year-old brother Amr. “I don’t remember the date,” he said. “Maybe it was 27 January.”

So, like millions of others, Gameel was excited about the change that was coming. Yet he was hardly one of the hardened shock-troops of the anti-Mubarak movement.

It did not matter. As he reached the main road which took him to work in downtown Cairo every day, his path was blocked by scores of knife and club-wielding Mubarak supporters standing beneath an overpass.

“They said to him and Sameh, ‘You’re not leaving this place.’ They didn’t give him a chance to think,” said Amr.

After running back a few yards onto a rubbish-strewn sidetrack alongside a murky river, Gameel’s attackers set upon him with knives and clubs just meters away from a neglected, shabby-looking mosque. According to his family, he was knifed five times. His cousin Sameh was lucky enough to escape with just a beating.

“He was taken to hospital by a stranger,” said Amr, who works in a coffee shop near the family home. “But they turned him back from there because they were so busy. He died here in our house.”

Gameel was the main bread-winner in the family. His elderly father, 62-year-old Mousad, is a bowab (apartment doorman), but is sick and does not work regularly.

According to Naeema, Gameel was responsible for the whole family, including his brother and five sisters.

“He was caring for his ill father and was the only one working properly in the family. He was the one responsible for marrying his sisters and for the education of the family,” she added.

“He was a very, very good and caring person. He was responsible for the whole family. When his father had a heart attack Gameel was the one who looked after him.”

Gameel was a keen body-builder. Amr said his favorite weight-lifting star was Ronnie Coleman, a professional body-builder from America. Before becoming a security guard he graduated from an institute for industrial workers. “He succeeded in all of the years,” said Naeema. “He didn’t drop down.”

According to Amr, Gameel used to drop in to the café near his house after work to play dominoes with his friends. Usually he would stay awake until 1AM.

“Even when he went to the coffee shop he was the one talking about the demonstrations,” said Amr.

“Everyone was working here in the village, but he was working in the place with all the protests. He was the one who was seeing it for real. We hope that God has given him mercy and that he is in heaven now. I hope the story of my brother reaches the Egyptian people just like all the other martyrs in the Egyptian revolution.”

Egypt’s “Indiana Jones” bows out

Dr Zahi Hawass has won many admirers over the years....but also some enemies

Originally published in the Independent, March 5, 2011

The archaeologist who styles himself as Egypt’s Indiana Jones, battling to save the nation’s rich heritage, has said he will resign as antiquities minister, complaining that treasures are being looted and ravaged with little protection from the authorities.

Dr Zahi Hawass, who has come under fire for his links to the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, said the country’s antiquities were in “grave danger” from criminals, with the new military regime that took power last month failing to preserve law and order.

“Since Mubarak’s resignation, looting has increased all over the country, and our antiquities are in grave danger from criminals trying to take advantage of the situation,” he wrote on his website, going on to list dozens of archaeological sites across the country raided since Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February.

Egyptian newspapers yesterday widely quoted the fedora-wearing TV personality saying he was not willing to participate in the government of Essam Sharaf, named as the new Prime Minister by the military on Thursday, after the Mubarak-appointed Ahmed Shafiq resigned.

Dr Hawass told the Al-Masry-Al-Youm newspaper: “I will not return to the ministry again. During my life, I have never felt weak until the period which I assumed my position in the Ministry of Antiquities.”

His statements appear to contradict an interview with The Independent last month, when he insisted Egypt was fully able to look after its treasures, which include the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the pyramids of Giza and the Pharaonic treasures at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Sitting in his government office on the plush residential island of Zamalek in the Nile two weeks ago, he insisted: “The world should salute what these people did and come to Tahrir Square to thank them for saving the museum.”

He said the government had coped admirably in protecting its museums and ancient sites during the 18-day uprising, when tens of thousands of people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to call for an end to Mr Mubarak’s long autocratic rule. Dr Hawass even touted the idea of a museum to honour the uprising. He also took aim at suggestions that the upheaval may have dealt a blow to his campaign to repatriate Egyptian artefacts being kept in Britain. He said that if there had been a revolution in the UK, “not one single thing would have been left in the British Museum”.

The uprising brought widespread looting and vandalism. At the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, 18 artefacts were reported missing, including two statues of the boy king Tutankhamun. Four have been found. Thieves also targeted the ancient burial ground of Sakkara. Egypt’s tourist sites reopened last month, but holidaymakers are staying away.

A crime wave has also hit some parts of the country, with the police, widely reviled as tools of Mubarak, disappearing from the streets after the revolution. Some returned after the army stepped in to maintain law and order, but security remains fragile.

“The antiquities guards and security forces at sites are unarmed and this makes them easy targets for armed looters,” Dr Hawass wrote on his website this week. “In addition, the Egyptian police force does not have the capacity to protect every single site, monument and museum in Egypt.”

Dr Hawass had come under fire for his links to Mubarak. He was named Minister of Antiquities during the deposed president’s desperate cabinet reshuffle on 31 January, a last futile effort to cling on to power. He was also the target of a protest last month by about 200 archaeologists who gathered outside his office to demand employment.

With his fedora hat and desert fatigues, Dr Hawass has cast himself in the mould of an Indiana Jones-style figure, but his brusque, steamroller style has not always won him admirers. The one thing his staff members agree on is that he is a seven-day-week workaholic; others have said his countless magazine, book and documentary appearances are calculated to promote himself as much as his science.

Such is the profile of the headline-hogging archaeologist, some in the blogosphere had even touted Dr Hawass as a future leader. But they look set to be disappointed. “I’m not a politician,” he said gruffly when asked last month about his leadership ambitions. “I’m a technician. Don’t ask me about politics. I rule it out completely.”

Reading Dan Brown in Damascus

Dan Brown's creation still divides opinion in the Middle East

Ullin throws back her head, clasps her hands together and cries out in dismay.

“You don’t like the Da Vinci Code? Why not?”

Dan Brown’s Christian revisionism blockbuster has come in for its fair share of opprobrium since it was published in 2003, but Ullin, a graphic designer, is not having any of it.

The 28-year-old, who is wearing a denim jacket with sunglasses propped up behind her brow, has read all of his books.

The former art student says she likes The Da Vinci Code for a number of reasons – the main one being that her favourite painting is The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous mural depicting the biblical meal when Jesus supposedly told his disciples that one of them would betray him.

According to Ullin, huge numbers of readers across the Middle East like the Dan Brown bestseller because they think it reveals new details about the life of Jesus – a fact that would no doubt irk a large number of Christian leaders in the region, some of whom persuaded their governments to ban both the book and film because of its suggestion that Mary Magdalene fathered the Son of God’s child.

Speak to some scurrilous Damascenes and they will tell you the secret of the book’s popularity here lies among the country’s  Muslims, who read it to snigger over the “truths” supposedly being scooped up about the life of Jesus – though this theory somehow overlooks the fact that Christ is one of Islam’s most important prophets.

But for Ullin there is another, altogether more prosaic reason that she admires Dan Brown – “I like him because he makes you want to turn the page.”

Perhaps there is more in common between East and West than meets the eye.

The waiting game

Posters in a Syrian refugee camp of the assassinated Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Rahr’s eyes briefly mist over as he stares at the bare, white wall in front of him.

“Every nation, even the strong ones, eventually become weak,” he says.

The 25-year-old is one of more than 450,000 Palestinian refugees now living in Syria.

His father was just two when the family fled their home in the West Bank town of Ramallah after the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Now, under UN rules which grant refugee status to any descendants of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, he has become one of Syria’s many men-in-waiting.

“We will have a nation,” insists Rahr, a chemist who makes drugs for vetinary surgeries.

“Israel will be defeated when the Arab nations join together.”

It sounds like the kind of discredited Arab nationalist rhetoric once espoused by the Egyptian demagogue Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Rahr talks of the Palestinians eventually achieving istaqlaal, or independence, and overcoming the oppression of the Israeli occupation.

Yet one wonders how many Palestinians here would choose to go back if they had the opportunity. The majority were born in Syria and have never touched foot on the soil they want to call home.

Although, as in other Arab countries, Palestinians here are not eligible for citizenship (a result of a pan-Arab 1965 agreement to preserve the identity of refugees), they are granted full access to government services, possess travel documents, have the same educational rights as Syrian citizens and can work as government employees.

In contrast, refugees in Lebanon were only granted the right to work last month – and even then they are barred from professional jobs like law and medicine and are forbidden from buying property.

One Palestinian friend said he would be surprised if many refugees ever did take up their right of return.

“They are brought up to think like this,” he once said. “It’s what they are supposed to say. But why would you go back to an undeveloped Palestinian state when you have a successful life in Syria?”

Just ask Rahr. He is a patient man, and takes a long-term view of the Palestinian waiting game.

“Look at America. They were once strong, and now they are becoming weak. Soon Israel will be defeated.”

Memories of a war

Explosions rock Baghdad as the 2003 invasion begins

There is one thing Ru’a remembers very clearly about the night of March 20, 2003 – the wail of Baghdad’s air raid sirens.

“It was the first thing I heard when the invasion started”, she said. “Even now, I hate that sound.”

The 21-year-old joined millions of other Iraqis when she fled the murderous chaos of her country four years ago for the sanctuary of neighbouring Syria.

Just 13 when George Bush launched the war which would remould the Middle East, she now lives with her family in Damascus and is enrolled as a dentistry student in the city.

Although keen to return home, Ru’a is pessimistic about the future of her country.

Sitting down in her cream and blue hijab with an ankle-length black, cotton jacket and Adidas trainers, she said: “When the American invasion began, they said Iraq would become just like an American state. But this is not the case.”

As for the argument that her country is a better place without Saddam Hussein, Ru’a doesn’t buy it.

“I was young so I don’t remember him much. But my parents lived there for 50 years and even they preferred him to the Americans.”

Another casualty of war; another life living in the limbo of post-invasionIraq.