Out of jail, lifelong dissident joins Syria revolt

January 19, 2012 - 4:35 PM
Mideast Jordan Syrian Dissident

In this Friday, Jan. 6, 2012 photo, Kamal al-Labwani, 54, speaks to a crowd during an anti-Assad rally in Amman, Jordan. One of Syria's most prominent dissidents, who worked for years against the Assad dynasty, stepped out of prison two months ago to discover that his country was enflamed with the revolution he long dreamed of. Now Kamal al-Labwani is rushing to join in; he slipped across the border into Jordan to work with other exiles against the regime. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — One of Syria's most prominent dissidents, who worked for years against the Assad family regime, stepped out of prison two months ago to discover that his country was aflame with the revolution he long hoped for.

Jailed since 2005, Kamal al-Labwani had heard hints about what was happening on the outside the past year from visitors and even from guards. But prison authorities kept him and other prisoners under an information blackout — no newspapers or TV news over the past 10 months when hundreds of thousands of Syrians were taking to the streets nearly daily despite a relentless and bloody crackdown, demanding President Bashar Assad's ouster.

So he was stunned to see the full extent of the revolt when he was freed in November as part of an amnesty Assad's regime ordered as a reform gesture.

"I am seeing my long-time dreams come true, even better. For years, I dreamt of revolution, change. I was astonished to see it all happening," the 54-year-old al-Labwani told The Associated Press this week in the Jordanian capital Amman, his voice welling with emotion.

To a generation of opposition figures like al-Labwani, Syria's popular uprising is a vindication for their years of largely stifled efforts against the authoritarian regime. For four decades, they struggled to find ways to raise a voice of dissent in one of the region's most tightly controlled nations, where people were wary of criticizing their rulers even in personal conversations. Now that regime is facing its strongest challenge ever, lashing back with a crackdown that the United Nations estimates has left more than 5,000 dead.

The older generation of dissidents is trying to help the movement. Weeks after his release, al-Labwani slipped into neighboring Jordan, smuggled across the border in a nighttime escape, to join exiles helping organize activists inside Syria and garner them international support.

"Time is blood now, not money. It means more victims, torture and destruction of our country. We have to move very fast," he told a cheering anti-Assad rally in Amman last weekWith his salt-and-pepper hair and dignified grey suit, al-Labwani — a trained doctor — stood out in the crowd of mostly young protesters, many in hooded sweat shirts or the robes of religious conservatives.

He has been using his international prominence to lobby governments to act. He said his ideal would be for a no-fly zone to be imposed to create a "safe zone" inside Syria where people can flee to, but he doesn't think that's likely, given the West's deep reluctance over any military action over Syria.

The alternative would be international backing for the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors who sided with the protesters and have carried out attacks on regime forces.

"So far, the international community hasn't done its job to help protect civilians in Syria," he said. "So we will need to try to do this ourselves by supporting the Free Army and revolutionaries. We may have to resort to arms to protect our civilians."

Al-Labwani first participated in street demonstrations as a 6-year-old, when he joined classmates at protests against the Baathist military takeover of Syria. At university, he joined the banned opposition Shaab, or People's, Party, going into hiding for months to elude arrest.

He was a military doctor in Hama during the 1982 assault on the city to crush the opposition Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands were killed in the crackdown. Al-Labwani says he and other doctors were allowed only to treat soldiers, not residents — and the experience convinced him the Assad regime had to end.

"I saw the city bombed, attacked, people killed," he said. "I felt terrible because I could not do anything to help the people at this time. That's why I insist I must help them now."

He came to prominence during the Damascus Spring in 2000, when Bashar Assad ascended to power after the death of his father, longtime strongman Hafez Assad. The succession brought a loosening of restrictions, and there was a flourishing of unusually open forums by activists and intellectuals discussing change.

But the short-lived opening ended with a 2001 crackdown. Al-Labwani was among those arrested, thrown into solitary confinement for three years.

Soon after his release, he became the first human rights defender from inside Syria invited by the White House to discuss the case for Syrian democracy, in 2005. After visiting the U.S., Britain and Europe, he was arrested at Damascus airport and sentenced to 12 years in prison, the harshest sentence against a prominent dissident since Bashar took power.

"My crime was contact with the U.S. government," he joked. "I demanded democracy and human rights. The regime regarded this as an attack, because human rights will destroy it."

The amnesty cut his sentence in half, leading to his release in November. But he was warned he would be jailed again if he carried out any political activity. He says he decided the only way to help in the uprising was to work from exile.

His wife, son and two daughters crossed legally into Jordan. But al-Labwani had no passport and was banned from travel. Activists moved him secretly to Daraa, the town where the uprising first erupted early last year, near the Jordanian border. He moved from house to house for days until one December night he was taken by motorbike through the hills to the border. Under cover of darkness, he made the half-hour walk on foot across no-man's land to the Jordanian side.

He has since joined the Syrian National Council, one of the main opposition umbrella groups to emerge as the uprising's leadership. Some 3,000 Syrians have fled into Jordan since the protests began in March, and thousands more have escaped into Turkey and Lebanon, forming networks of opposition activists to try to organize the movement.

So far, the Free Syrian Army has remained relatively small, with the military largely staying loyal to Assad. But al-Labwani claims more soldiers are contacting the opposition for help to defect. If massive defections take place, he said, it could take three to six months to win the battle on the ground.

From Jordan, he has been in communication with organizers inside Syria via email, Skype and telephone.

He said he was in "minute by minute" contact with on activists in his hometown of Zabadani, a mountain town 17 miles (27 kilometers) west of Damascus, during a fierce assault by government forces the past six days, with heavy bombardment and clashes with army defectors. On Wednesday, government forces pulled back, leaving the opposition in control of the town.

In the unprecedented protests the past year, he sees hope for a post-Assad Syria.

"Peaceful protests are the foundation of our revolution," he said. "It's from these protests that we are building our membership base and new institutions that belong to the people, not the regime."