Summary and Current Status
On August 7, 2008, after serving more than six years of his lengthy sentence, Syrian economist ’Aref Dalila was granted a presidential pardon on grounds of poor health. He remains in serious ill-health, suffering from numerous ailments, including diabetes, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and heart problems. Dr. Dalila was arrested in 2001, convicted, and given a ten-year prison sentence for his peaceful efforts to call for political and economic reform in his country. Amnesty International (AI) adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.
Dr. ‘Aref Dalila is a Syrian economist. Formerly dean of the Faculty of Economics at Aleppo University, he was dismissed from his post, reportedly because of his outspoken views against government corruption and his calls for freedom of expression to complement economic reform. When Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he reportedly spoke of the necessity of reform and constructive criticism during his inaugural speech and later met with Dr. Dalila, promising to reinstate him in his academic post. However, we understand that the prime minister subsequently informed Dr. Dalila that he could not be reinstated as dean unless he renounced his critical views with regard to government corruption and the need for reform. Dr. Dalila refused to do so and, as a result, was never reinstated.
During this period—generally referred to as the “Damascus Spring” because the Syrian authorities tacitly allowed a margin of freedom of expression—Dr. Dalila helped form a loose network of Syrian intellectuals and businessmen that held a series of forums where public affairs and political and cultural issues were discussed. Eventually, Dr. Dalila and other civil society activists organized under the name Committees for the Revival of Civil Society (Lijan Ihya al-Mujtama' al-Madani), of which he was a founding member. At various forums, Dr. Dalila reportedly continued to speak out against government corruption and to call on the government to grant freedom of expression to complement economic reforms. In addition, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Dr. Dalila wrote an “unusually critical analysis of the state-run Syrian economy” that blamed the Syrian government for two decades of economic stagnation. His article was published in the official daily Al-Thawra in early October 2000.
In February 2001, as the political forums reportedly gained popularity, the Syrian authorities began to require that their organizers obtain official permission before a forum could be held. That same month independent parliamentarian Riad Seif, the leader of the National Dialogue Forum, applied for official permission to hold a forum. After trying for seven months, without success, to obtain permission, MP Seif held the forum at his home on the outskirts of Damascus on September 5, 2001. Dr. Dalila was one of more than 400 people who reportedly attended and listened to guest speaker Professor Burhan Ghalyun, a sociologist from the Sorbonne University in Paris, lecture on the need in Syria for radical political change, the creation of a multi-party system, and an end to martial law. During the discussion that followed the lecture, Dr. Dalila reportedly peacefully expressed his opinions, some of which were critical of the Syrian government.
Four days later, on September 9, 2001, Dr. Dalila was one of a group of people arrested in Damascus by members of the Political Security Department Forces (al-Amn al-Siyassi). He reportedly was not told of the charges against him at the time of his arrest or during his pre-trial detention. Initially, he was reportedly held incommunicado and in solitary confinement in ‘Adra prison, without access to his family or his lawyer. During eight months of pre-trial detention, reliable reports indicate that he was beaten and ill-treated. Amnesty International (AI) adopted Dr. Dalila as a prisoner of conscience and called for his immediate and unconditional release.
In March 2002, Dr. Dalila and several of the others who were detained with him went on a hunger strike. A statement by the detainees’ wives said that their husbands were protesting their unjustified detention and limited access to legal counsel and demanding better health care. According to Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the strike ended when the Syrian authorities took Dr. Dalila and two other detainees to the hospital. AI reported that, as of late June 2002, the men were no longer on hunger strike.
According to reliable reports, it was not until May 9, 2002, when Dr. Dalila was brought before the State Supreme Security Court (SSSC) for the first time and his trial began, that he was informed of the charges against him. SSSC procedures reportedly fell far short of internationally recognized fair trial standards. He was not in a position to prepare his defense or instruct his lawyer because he was not informed of the charges brought against him in advance of the trial. Reports indicate that, on June 3, 2002, during the course of the trial, Dr. Dalila presented a blood-stained handkerchief as proof of the ill-treatment that he had suffered. Later, at the same hearing, the court chairperson, a military officer, ordered Dr. Dalila’s lawyer, Anwar al-Bunni, out of the court and issued an order banning him indefinitely from practicing before the SSSC because he had requested that the Criminal Court make note of and investigate Dr. Dalila’s alleged ill-treatment in ‘Adra prison during his pre-trial detention. It was also reported that diplomats, journalists, and Dr. Dalila’s relatives were not allowed to attend his trial.
According to Amnesty International, the SSSC lacks both independence and impartiality, and “trials before the SSSC breach international fair trial standards and fail to meet the requirements of Syria’s own laws or conform with practices in Syria’s ordinary courts.” Defendants’ lawyers reportedly are not free to meet their clients in detention without written permission from the president of the SSSC, which is often withheld. According to Human Rights Watch, lawyers of defendants tried by the SSSC are not guaranteed access to clients prior to trial, trial proceedings begin before lawyers have had an opportunity to see the case files, and the court often denies lawyers the opportunity to engage in oral arguments on behalf of their clients. Furthermore, defendants sentenced by the SSSC have no right to appeal their verdicts to a higher authority.
Although the prosecution reportedly failed to produce any credible evidence to support its charges that Dr. Dalila engaged in “hostile activities against the country” and “dissemination of fallacious information conducive to sapping the morale of the nation” that constituted “incitement to armed rebellion,” he was convicted by the SSSC on July 31, 2002. The court sentenced him to ten years’ imprisonment, including time already spent in detention.
Of the group of ten “Damascus Spring” prisoners who were arrest in fall 2001, Dr. Dalila received the harshest treatment. Even though everyone in the group faced the same charges, Dr. Dalila’s sentence was twice the length of those given to the others, despite that he was the oldest in the group. All of the other men in the group were released prior to Dr. Dalila, including medical doctors Walid al-Bunni
and Kamal al-Labwani
and engineer Fawwaz Tello
, whose cases had been undertaken by the CHR. (Drs al-Bunni and al-Labwani have since been rearrested and are back in prison.)
Numerous reputable international groups raised concern about Dr. Dalila’s lengthy and unfair prison sentence. In August 2002, the European Union expressed deep regret about the prison sentences against Dr. Dalila and others for “peacefully exercising their legitimate right to freedom of speech” and urged Syria to release all political prisoners. One month later, on September 12, 2002, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention adopted an opinion on the case of Dr. Dalila, finding that his deprivation of liberty is arbitrary and in contravention of articles 9, 10, 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 9, 14, 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
A violent incident involving Dr. Dalila’s children, that appeared to have been in retaliation for their father’s nonviolent activities critical of Syrian authorities, was also of concern to the CHR. According to reliable reports, on April 8, 2004, Dr. Dalila’s adult son, Shadi, and daughter, Samira, were attacked with knives and other sharp objects in their house in the village of Besnada, 350 kilometers northeast of Damascus. Dr. Dalila’s lawyer stated that a “group of several persons known for their criminal past and claiming the protection of decision-makers in the security services, smashed the door of the house and said they could do whatever they wanted.” Shadi Dalila required hospitalization for knife wounds to his face which caused permanent disfiguration.
During his imprisonment, Dr. Dalila was subjected to harsh conditions of confinement. He was held in solitary confinement the entire time. Because his cell under the roof on the upper level of Damascus Central Prison reportedly did not have a fan or a heater, the temperature fluctuated between extreme highs and extreme lows, depending on the weather outside. On a more positive note, the CHR was able to corroborate that Dr. Dalila was permitted to receive regular visits from family members and to have access to newspapers.
During the years that Dr. Dalila was in prison, his health deteriorated dramatically. He suffered from numerous medical disorders, including irregular heartbeat, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), diabetes, and high blood pressure. AI expressed concern that there were periods when Dr. Dalila did not receive “the urgent medical treatment that he required” and that the anti-coagulant medication that he received in prison may not have been administered correctly. AI reported that, in late 2005, a procedure was performed on Dr. Dalila’s heart during which a balloon was inserted and inflated slightly to improve the blood flow. Despite his doctor’s advice, Dr. Dalila reportedly decided not to subject himself to a heart operation while in custody and demanded access to medical care independent of prison authorities. AI also reported that Dr. Dalila suffered a stroke in May 2006 that left him numb on the left side of his body and caused his left hand and foot to swell.
Complications from diabetes plagued Dr. Dalila as well. According to an opinion piece that appeared in Al Mustaqbal newspaper, in August 2007, when Dr. Dalila went into a diabetic coma for about 40 minutes, he was not transported to a hospital or given adequate medical care by the prison doctor.
In early 2008, the CHR received reports that Dr. Dalila’s leg had turned black because his DVT was impeding or stopping the blood flow. Medical tests conducted about that same time reportedly showed that Dr. Dalila also had a blood clot in his lungs and apparent swelling of the right ventricle of his heart. The CHR learned that Dr. Dalila was conscious, but unresponsive when a family member visited him in prison in late July 2008.
On August 7, 2008, Dr. Dalila was granted a presidential pardon on grounds of poor health. The CHR understands that Dr. Dalila’s lawyer had presented a petition to the SSSC on September 27, 2007, asking that his case be referred to a medical committee in accordance with Legislative Decree No. 56. This decree grants a general amnesty for crimes committed before July 17, 2007, and includes provisions for prisoners who have incurable diseases. While it would appear that Dr. Dalila qualified for amnesty under this decree because he was arrested before the stipulated date and suffers from diabetes and heart disease, it is unknown whether this was the impetus for his release from prison.