Beatings In Paris Show How Far Syrian Regime Will Go To Pursue Dissenters
Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy forces has killed thousands in cities like Rastan and Daraa. But the regime is also pursuing opponents abroad. In Paris, several activists have been beaten by shadowy characters presumed to be Syrian secret ser
PARIS -- We are far from Rastan, where after five days of heavy-artillery bombing and dozens killed, the Syrian Army regained control last weekend. We are also far from Istanbul, where the Syrian opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad's regime set up a 190-strong National Council. So far, and yet so close.
The fate of the Syrian revolution, which began on March 15, is also playing out in Paris, the stage of a shadow theater in which some of the protagonists are members of the Mukhabarat, Syria's dreaded secret service. From threatening phone calls to brutal attacks, the Mukhabarat has quietly but systematically been making its presence known in the French capital.
In the square at Chatelet, in the heart of Paris, the same scene is repeated every weekend. Dozens of Syrian demonstrators and sympathizers gather around the fountain, where they unfurl banners, and display posters and pictures denouncing the dictatorship and repression in Syria. The atmosphere is at once friendly and fierce.
A better trained observer will notice the ballet of infiltrators circulating on foot or in cars, recording images of the crowd with their cell phones. On Aug. 26, one of the demonstrators, Azad Namo, was attending to the group's sound system when he suddenly heard an insult. "Hands grabbed my face from behind," he later recalled. "I fought back, a woman tried to bite me. When I fell to the ground, at least five people, two young men, two young women and an older woman were kicking and punching me."
Two plain-clothes officers posted to protect the publicly authorized demonstration were quickly overwhelmed by the scuffle. While Azad was being attacked, several demonstrators were confronted by a group screaming slogans glorifying the Syrian president.
Azad's story is one of several documented by Amnesty International, which released a report earlier this week on the Mukhabarat's shadowy operations in Paris. Shevan Amhani was also beat up during the Aug. 26 attack. At 31, he has been living in France since he was 11. He now works as an operations manager for a transportation company. Before the Syrian revolution began, Shevan had never been involved in activism . Over the past few months, however, he has taken part in numerous demonstrations – something that has apparently not gone unnoticed. Besides the beating, he has received numerous threatening e-mails. "We'll get you, wherever you are," the messages read.
Nine of the troublemakers were eventually arrested. A police officer told Azad that at least two owned diplomatic passports. Shevan, Azad and Georgette Alam, another victim, went to the second district precinct to file complaints. An officer asked them to identify their attackers. "I didn't want to," said Shevan. "But the policeman insisted. When I got into the police truck, the detained men insulted and threatened me in Arabic. They were filming me with their cell phones. Four of them were among the group that beat me up." A few hours later, everyone was released.
"A horror movie"
Shevan, Azad and Georgette left the police station in the company of Salem Hassan, a Kurdish militant, and Mohamad Taha, a high-profile organizer supporting the Syrian revolution. When the group reached Rue Lafayette, a red car pulled up alongside them. Four men armed with baseball bats got out of the vehicle. Mohamad recalled that one of the men yelled: "So motherf---rs, you guys are demonstrating?"
"More people arrived," said Mohamad. "I found myself on the ground, pinned down while a man hit my head against the sidewalk." At that point the activist saw a red car move toward him, ready to run him over. He though he was going to die. But with a sudden burst of strength, Mohamad freed himself, and quickly joined Georgette and the others in a nearby café where they sought refuge.
"It was a horror movie" said Mohamad. "I suddenly realized that this is what Syrians experience on a day-to-day basis. I'd never thought I would run into Chabiha (civilian and armed pro-regime militia) in Paris. I recognized at least two of the attackers from Chatelet. They'd followed us." Police managed to apprehend only two of the attackers.
Shevan, Mohamad and Salem were seriously hurt and covered in blood. They spent the night at a hospital before returning to the police precinct the following morning to file a complaint. There, to their utter surprise, they saw two of their attackers walk out free.
Since then, the wounded activists have been living in fear. They continue to speak out in favor of the revolution by demonstrating and sharing videos and news they receive from the home country – but always looking over their shoulders.
Georgette admits she checks her rearview mirror every time she parks her car. "I had no idea I was running any risks here," said the 43-year-old restaurant manager who has lived in Paris since 1985. Mohamad says he jumps whenever anyone gets too close. Azad worries about how all this could affect family members still living in Syria. He has good reason to be concerned. His brother heard about Azad's troubles in Paris through the visit of leather-clad men. "My brother called and said: ‘please, you're far away, don't cause us any trouble,"" said Azad.
At this point it's not at clear what – if anything – will be done with the men arrested for their alleged involvement in the two Aug. 26 attacks. The lawyer for the victims laments the fact that "the alleged attackers might not face justice under the pretext of diplomatic immunity." So far, however, French authorities are publicly denying that the involved Syrians, who are said to be related through marriage to the family of Maher Al-Assad – President Bashar Al-Assad's brother – have diplomatic passports.
The August incidents are not without precedent in Paris. In 1982, a downtown demonstration against the Hama Massacre was savagely attacked by a dozen Syrian agents on an express visit from Damascus. Salim Al-Awabdeh, one of Saturday's demonstrators, remembers that incident well. He still has the scars on his hands.
Read the original article in French
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