Haitham al-Maleh, an 81-year-old Syrian human rights lawyer, has spent most of his life struggling against autocracy in Syria and the last forty years battling the iron-fisted rule of Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, Hafez al-Assad.
“I will live to see the Assad regime fall, just as sure as we are sitting here together,” Maleh said in an interview on a recent visit to Cairo. Tall, with a thick, white goatee, large aquiline nose and an easy confidence, Maleh speaks in a lively manner that belies his years.
His life story is one of relentless resistance to government repression in Syria.
Maleh was first arrested in 1951, at the age of 20, and held for three weeks, after he spoke out as a young lawyer calling for an independent judiciary. Undeterred, he continued to practice law, eventually rising to become a judge. In 1966, he was forced off the bench by the ruling Baath party for his vocal opposition to emergency laws that had had been put in place three years earlier, which effectively suspended most constitutional protections for citizens.
During the 1950s and ’60s, power in Syria continued to change hands through a series of coups and counter-coups until Hafez al-Assad seized control in 1970.
After losing his judgeship, Maleh continued his work as a human rights attorney throughout the 1970s, emerging as a leading reform advocate within the Lawyers Bar Association. In 1978, he, along with several colleagues, drafted a document demanding a number of constitutional reforms, the lifting of the emergency laws and the release of all political prisoners as part of a move towards freedom, plurality and human rights in Syria. It wasn’t long before other professional groups signed on, including the engineers’, doctors’ and teachers’ associations. The movement continued to gain support, culminating in a mass one-day strike in March 1980.
The Assad regime responded by cracking down hard. The government dissolved the professional trade unions, arrested hundreds of their members and issued a law to place all professional associations under Baath party rule. Maleh was among those arrested in early 1980. He was thrown in prison without charge or trial and spent the next seven years behind bars, according to Maleh, by the personal order of Hafez al-Assad himself. “This is a country ruled by orders, not by law,” he says.
Assad died in June 2000. One month later, his 34-year-old son, Bashar al-Assad, a London-trained ophthalmologist, was sworn in. The constitution was altered to enable him to take over. In his inaugural speech, the young president suggested that a new era of openness and reform might be at hand. Emboldened dissidents began to speak out and dozens of critical discussion groups were formed within civil society and the political elite in what became known as the “Damascus Spring.”
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“I called it a warm day in winter,” Maleh says. The moment of optimism was short-lived. Within months, the discussion groups were closed and dissidents were arrested and jailed. “I was not surprised. Bashar is the son of his father.”
Maleh wrote a letter to Assad asking him to address several human rights issues in Syria, such as the killing and disappearance of tens of thousands under his father’s reign and to revise a number of laws, including one that stipulates the execution of any member of the Muslim Brotherhood and another that shields members of the intelligence services from prosecution. He never heard back.
In December 2003, Maleh delivered a speech before the German parliament on the human rights situation in Syria. In it, he called the Assad regime “a fascist dictatorship.” When he returned home, the authorities imposed a travel ban on him and he was prevented from leaving the county for the next seven years. During this period, he was subjected to repeated government intimidation and harassment. His law office was attacked three times and his windows smashed by regime forces. The street leading to his office would periodically be closed by dozens of high-ranking police and members of the intelligence services. His clients would be harassed and told to find another attorney. “I was under a lot of pressure,” Maleh says. “It was a kind of terror against me, against my customers.”
Undaunted, Maleh continued to publicly criticize the Syrian government, denouncing the continued state of emergency and the lack of judicial independence. On October 14, 2009, he was arrested and brought before a military court. In July 2010, at the age of 79, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “undermining national sentiment” and “spreading false news that could weaken national morale.” Amnesty International called him “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association.”
Maleh was suffering diabetes and thyroid problems, and his health deteriorated in prison to the point where he spent a month and a half without being able to walk. On March 8, 2011, he was released, after Assad—in the midst of a wave of uprisings across the Arab world—declared an amnesty for prisoners over 70 years old and those convicted of minor crimes.
Within thirty minutes of returning home, Maleh began to publicly criticize the regime, calling in interviews with global media for reforms and for the release of all political prisoners. One week later, on March 15, the Syrian uprising began.
“I pushed for this uprising, for this movement, for so many years,” Maleh says. “I was not surprised it happened. This is the worst regime in the Arab world.”
The Syrian government sent in the army to crush the protests. Hundreds were killed in the first few weeks alone. The regime soon began carrying out raids across the country, arresting thousands of people and prompting scores of Syria’s most prominent intellectuals and activists to go into hiding.
At the end of April, Maleh’s son, Iyas, received word that government forces were going to his father’s house to kill him. Iyas had lived in the United States in exile since 1980, when he left Syria at the age of 19 after he was arrested and jailed for three months for being active in the reform movement with his father. After his father’s imprisonment in 2010, Iyas spearheaded an international campaign for his release, traveling across Europe to raise awareness about his case. When the uprising began, Iyas stayed in close contact with activists in Syria, and helped to get the word out about the uprising and the regime crackdown.
“I received a call at 3 in the morning from someone I know in Syria who has a connection with the government,” Iyas says. “He said ‘they will be at your father’s house at 5 am.’ ” Iyas called his father and told him to get out of the house immediately. Maleh took his passport and went into hiding, staying underground for most of the month of May, changing houses often and disguising himself with a hat and beard.
In July, the government lifted the travel ban on Maleh and several other prominent opposition figures. “I don’t know why,” Maleh says. “There is no ‘why’ in Syria. You cannot ask.” He immediately left the country, reuniting with his son for the first time in seven years. They traveled to Istanbul to attend an opposition gathering and embarked on a tour of Western Europe and the Middle East to garner support for the protesters in Syria and call on governments to condemn the Assad regime and sever diplomatic relations.
Official estimates put the death toll in Syria at more than 2,200 over the past five and a half months. Maleh believes the figures are much higher. “More than 3,000 people have been killed or disappeared and more that 25,000 have been arrested,” Maleh says.
Despite the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown and the personal threats to his life, Maleh plans to return to Syria in a few weeks to continue his life’s work. “We will be the winner,” he says with a smile. “This regime is going to hell.”