Two months ago, when prominent Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni finally stepped onto the streets of Damascus after completing a five year jail sentence, he walked out into a changed world.
On a personal level, the nightmare of his prison existence- a prisoner of conscience surrounded by convicted criminals and living in fear of attack by both inmates and guards - was finally over. But, more broadly, the popular protests that had erupted two months earlier meant that Syria itself had been transformed. He and other human rights defenders no longer felt alone.
“In the past, only a few of us dared to call for freedom and human rights.” he told Amnesty International. “We used to feel isolated, as the majority of people avoided us out of fear of retribution from the authorities. After my release, I have realised that my demands became the demands of all the Syrian people.”
While in jail, he also received international recognition, in the form of a Front Line Award for Human Rights Defenders. But such recognition, both at home and abroad, came at a steep personal price. Anwar al-Bunni has been subjected to various forms of harassment, including facing disciplinary measures from the Damascus Bar Association, and being banned from travelling abroad.
In 2006 he was arrested for being among some 300 Syrian and Lebanese nationals who signed a petition calling for the normalisation of relations between Syria and Lebanon. A year later he was jailed for five years on a charge of “spreading false information harmful to the state” after speaking out about the case of a prisoner who died in detention as a result of torture or other ill-treatment.
Instead of being incarcerated with like –minded prisoners of conscience, Anwar al-Bunni served his entire sentence in the so called “Killer’s Wing” at Adra Prison. There he shared an overcrowded cell with convicted criminal prisoners, including some who were under sentence of death. The threat of violence too was always present.
“I spent most of my five–year sentence in a state of constant worry of possible attacks by other prisoners especially because I had been assaulted before by other inmates under pressure from the administration.” The guards also beat and degraded him, at one point shaving his head and making him crawl on all fours.
But Anwar al-Bunni was undeterred. Since his release, he has returned to his profession in the law, representing detained protestors in courts, writing papers on how Syria’s political system could be reformed and investigating human rights violations against some of the thousands of Syrians arrested after recent demonstrations. “Many are held in inhuman conditions where torture is quite widespread”. He recently spoke to a recently- released prisoner who was being incarcerated in a four-metre-square cell with around 200 others.
As for what the Syrian government has announced as reforms in response to the mass protests, including the lifting of the 48 year old state of emergency, Anwar al-Bunni says these have failed to transform the realities on the ground. On the contrary, he says, the authorities have introduced new measures to legalise mass arrests and extend incommunicado detention from a lawful maximum of four days to one of 60 days. “Legally”, he says “the situation now is worse than before.”
On a personal level, he and his wife are among many Syrians who remain banned from travelling abroad, despite a recent official announcement that such bans have been lifted. And for the next seven years he remains barred from voting or putting himself forward for election, working in the public sector or publishing or editing any publication.
But for Anwar al-Bunni, the response he has received from his fellow Syrians makes it all worthwhile. “Unlike before, people now openly express their solidarity with me and their respect for all that I have done.” he said. “To feel that you have actually given something to others and that they recognise and value what you have done is a great feeling!”
He also expressed thanks for Amnesty International’s support during the dark days of his imprisonment. He did not receive letters sent to him by the organization but was told of them by his wife: “I thank you very much and I consider myself as if I received the letters personally.”