Arrests and death threats silence Syrian activists

When Syrian security forces came looking for Muhammad Al Hamwi on 23 September, they made a threat calculated to strike fear into any Syrian parent’s heart.The man in charge told Muhammad’s parents: “I will crush the throat of your son with my foot. I will return him to you like Ghayath Mattar.”The Al Hamwis knew only too well what he meant. Ghayath, a friend of Muhammad’s, was arrested on 6 September after helping to lead peaceful protests in the Damascus suburb of Daraya. His dead body was returned to his parents four days after his arrest, bearing marks of torture. Amnesty International has collected information on over 100 individuals believed to have died in custody since April this year. Muhammad Al Hamwi is reported to have been taken away during the night of 23 September, along with his father and two other people from their apartment block. His brother, Haytham, told Amnesty International he thinks Muhammad was targeted because he had been filming pro-reform protests and uploading the films onto the internet. He has no idea why their father was arrested.Amnesty International has expressed fear for the safety of at least nine activists from Daraya who have been arrested in recent months.Haytham, an activist who spent two and a half years in jail as a prisoner of conscience before leaving Syria for the UK, puts the figure far higher. He estimates that around 600 people have been arrested in his old neighbourhood and says more of his old friends are now in jail than at liberty.“From every family,” he says, “there is a member who is in prison now.”But Haytham prefers to categorize them as “disappeared” rather than imprisoned. No-one knows where these people have been taken or what they are charged with. However, they are rumoured to be held by Air Force Intelligence, the main security agency operating in Daraya, according to human rights activists.He believes the ever growing arrests represent a new strategy by the Syrian authorities to quell six months of pro-reform protests.“Although the killing is continuing, they found arresting people is more efficient than killing them. Because blood usually gives fire to the protests… arresting people makes them more afraid.”And if that is the strategy, Haytham thinks it is working. He says protests in Daraya have dwindled to gatherings of 20 or 30 activists, who quickly film their demonstration before dispersing. “Daraya now is mostly quiet, because most of the activists are in prison. The security forces are everywhere; in the street, in the buildings, everywhere!”Haytham doesn’t consider his brother Muhammad to be a political activist. He is hoping that the threat made against Muhammad’s life was an empty one. But after the death of Ghayath Mattar, no-one can be sure. The families of the disappeared can only wait in hope.