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05DAMASCUS6014 2005-11-17 15:35:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Damascus
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					  C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 006014 



E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/16/2015



Classified By: CDA Stephen Seche for reasons 1.4 b/d

1. (C) SUMMARY: Civil-society activists, especially those
focusing on human rights, have expressed satisfaction with
recent USG statements calling for the release of Kamal
Labwani and other political prisoners. While glad that the
U.S. now includes human rights on its Syria agenda, many
contacts feel that such signals are long overdue, too focused
on Labwani as an individual, and are exploiting the
Mehlis-induced political climate. However, the statements'
impact on the general population appears limited, as most of
Syrian society is preoccupied by struggles to make ends meet
and, in many cases, very supportive of President Asad,s
November 10 speech. Meanwhile, European diplomats are not
pushing their own governments to make public statements on
Labwani's behalf, citing the current political climate. END

2. (C) Discussions with a number of civil-society contacts
reveal satisfaction with USG statements over the last week
calling for the SARG to release political prisoners,
including opposition figure Kamal Labwani and the six
remaining Damascus Spring detainees. Anwar al-Bunni noted to
Poloff that Syrian civil society had long desired such public
statements as evidence that the USG cared about SARG domestic
policies in addition to its foreign policy. Joumana Riad
Seif, daughter of Damascus Spring detainee Riad Seif, was
pleased that public pressure on the regime had increased and
hopes that European countries will follow the US's lead. As
noted in Ref A, a number of contacts feel that USG pressure
forced the SARG to reduce the criminal charges against
Labwani from those initially planned.

3. (C) One contact, Haithem Maleh, felt that USG statements
were insufficient, noting that there should have been a
general call for the SARG to discontinue torture and to
release all political prisoners. Civil society activists
also fear that USG efforts took place simply on behalf of
Labwani himself based on his connections with Washington and
that further action is not to be expected. One skeptical
contact lumped Labwani and Farid Ghadry,s ambitions
together, derisively referring to the two oppositionists as
the "two princes of Syria." Attorney Salahideen al-Khatib
told Polchief that while the USG statements were certainly
welcome, the timing could not have been worse, given the
current internal tensions and external crises induced by the
Mehlis investigation. The bad timing had undercut much of
the impact of the statements. Civil-society activist Hassan
Abbas, an Alawite intellectual, offered a broad dismissal of
the statements, saying Syrians generally considered USG
declarations on democracy as code language for re-ordering
the Middle East. He noted that press reports on Abu Ghraib
and secret U.S. prisons overseas had undercut-- at least
temporarily-- the USG's moral authority on the human rights

4. (C) In addition to Mehlis-related developments, USG
statements on Labwani have been also largely overshadowed by
President Bashar al-Asad's November 10 speech (ref B) among
both civil society and the population at large. Multiple
civil-society contacts have noted that fear has grown among
the opposition community following Asad's threatening
remarks, promising to "deal firmly with unpatriotic" people
with connections to the outside. In the days immediately
following the speech, Bunni took additional personal security
steps, including moving his car and keeping his children
indoors. Women's-rights activist Daad Mousa told Poloff that
she has been told by a friend with connections to the SARG
that authorities are demanding that civil-society figures
stop giving interviews to the foreign press and meeting with
diplomats. Mousa was also told that the SARG would increase
surveillance of activists and diplomats alike. Nonetheless,
many civil-society activists have ignored the threats and
continued business as usual, attending meetings with Poloffs
and make provocative statements in public fora, including at
a women's conference earlier this week (septel).

5. (C) Due in part to the current political environment
following Bashar's speech, other Western embassies in
Damascus are not willing to take a public stance on Labwani's
behalf and will not recommend such action to their respective
ministries. During a Canadian-hosted luncheon of 18 North
American and European mission human rights officers on
November 16, much discussion took place regarding how to
handle the Labwani case. While not directly criticizing
recent USG statements, a German diplomat stated that given
the current political situation, now is not the appropriate
time for taking public action. She also noted that because
Labwani had held political meetings with European and U.S.
officials, his was not a "purely" human rights case. A
Swedish diplomat noted that any public statements must
address political prisoners in general and not just
high-profile individuals. While acknowledging that human
rights activists had long been calling for foreign
governments to make public comments on the Syrian human
rights situation, an Austrian diplomat concurred with her EU
colleagues that public statements at this moment would be
ill-advised. A representative from the European Commission
noted that he expects a European Parliament resolution
(sponsored by the EP Liberal Democratic wing, which met with
Labwani in October) calling for Labwani,s release. However,
the EC does not plan to do anything on a local level.

6. (C) COMMENT: Asad's emotional November 10 appeal to
Syrians' patriotic and religious sentiments made a huge
impact on public opinion, both on the street and among the
elite. While many contacts acknowledge that the speech was
"rough" in places, especially the language on Lebanon, by and
large it elicited a positive, emotional Syrian response. One
contact reported seeing Syrians burst into tears of emotional
agreement with Asad's statement he would only bow his head to
Allah. Asad used his moment at the podium to effectively
forge the link between the regime and the Syrian people by
appealing to Syrians' patriotism and pointing out the threats
to Syria's dignity and security. In the wake of the speech,
it is very difficult for any activist to raise his or her
voice to defend Labwani and his criticism of the SARG. Asad
in his speech also effectively played on the doubts many of
Labwani's opposition colleagues have had regarding the
advisability of his visit to the U.S. at this time and of
publicly criticizing the regime during the visit. So far
Labwani's defenders, except for his family and other Damascus
Spring family members, are maintaining this carefully
circumscribed defense, insisting merely that his imprisonment
is a human-rights violation, but unwilling to make him a
cause celebre.