In late January of this year a letter addressed to the President of the Government of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was registered at the Moncloa Palace, the official seat of the Ministry of the Presidency. The letter outlined the plight of Kurdish political prisoners in Syria and asked for Spain’s assistance.
…we respectfully request your intervention with the Syrian government, with whom the Spanish government has excellent political relations, to recognise the state in which political prisoners in Syrian jails find themselves, and to request the release of all prisoners of conscience, seeking especially to investigate reports of torture and ill-treatment and, in its relations with the Syrian authorities, demand that international norms are respected in the treatment of prisoners.
We also ask that you investigate the mysterious deaths of some 34 Syrian soldiers of Kurdish origin (since 2004) while doing their military service.
The letter was sent by Zinar Ala on behalf of 1,075 Spanish citizens and Kurdish residents of Spain who signed it. There are approximately 1,500 Kurds living in Spain, half of whom come from Syria. Those who signed the document were politicians, journalists, teachers, academics, students, doctors and activists in NGOs, as well as ordinary citizens. Zinar, a Kurd from Efrîn, is a Spanish resident, dedicated human rights activist, blogger, and energetic campaigner against the regime in Damascus.
In October and November of 2009 Kurdish prisoners in Adra Prison near Damascus went on a hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of the prison. Protests and sympathy strikes were held across Europe. Says Zinar, ‘I wanted to echo these strikes in Spain. And taking advantage of the fact that Spain is currently Chair of the Presidency of the European Union, I thought I could do something for the political prisoners in Syria.’
The Kurdish minority in Syria, some 10% of the population, faces severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression, and systematic and pervasive human rights abuses by the Ba’athist regime. A state of emergency has been in force since 1963, giving the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge (Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 Report).
Despite documented evidence to the contrary, Syria is under the illusion that is has realised great progress in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms in the past decade. As proof of Syria’s renewed and strengthened commitment to human rights, they say, was the recent agreement reached with the European Union, which ‘would not have been possible if not for the European Union’s admiration and firm belief that the level of human rights in Syria was satisfactory,’ said Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
Early in May, Zinar and the other signatories to the letter received a response from the chief of staff of the Presidency of the Government of Spain, José Enrique Serrano Martínez, in which he states that Zapatero is concerned about the situation of prisoners in Syria.
[A]s you know, the promotion and protection of human rights is among the priorities of our government’s foreign policy. In fact, this priority is integrated across the board in all our policies and relations with other states.
In this context, Syria is, as you mention, a close country and friend. Thus, Spain takes advantage of the opportunities available to bring up to local authorities the cases of human rights of most concern to our government and our citizenry.
Martínez added that Spain ‘has raised on numerous occasions its interest in the situation of several human rights defenders, as well as other prisoners of conscience’ and that ‘many of these efforts have resulted in satisfactory results.’
He closes saying that he can assure those who wrote the letter ‘that the Spanish government will continue to monitor all cases of concern for human rights in Syria.’
While Zinar Ala is not overly optimistic that the Spanish Government will be able to sway Syrian authorities, or even attempt to, he says that at least actions like this one have made it into the Kurdish press. This is important as it gives hope to those Kurds living in Syria, knowing that someone on the outside is fighting for their rights and freedom.
Said Zinar, ‘If the Spanish government had warned the Syrian authorities to respect human rights, perhaps we would not have had two casualties and many wounded in the last Newroz festival in al-Raqqa.’
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos was in Syria last month holding talks with Bashar al-Assad, but it is doubtful he referred to the situation of human rights in Syria. However, Spanish Ambassador to Turkey, Joan Clos, on the other hand, is pressing for reform and a resolution to Kurdish issues in that country.
sources and related articles
Another Kurdish Soldier Dead in Syrian Army. Firat News Agency, 03 June 2010
Committee Against Torture Begins Examination of Report of Syria. The United Nations Office at Geneva, 03 May 2010.
Mil firmas piden a Zapatero ayuda para los presos políticos de Siria. Cuartopoder, 10 March 2010.
Serokwezîrê Spanya Ji Ber Rewşa Girtiyan Li Suriyê Xembar e. Rudaw, 24 May 2010.