IJMA3 Condemns Raid on Syrian NGOs, Demonstrating Increased Role and Danger For Female Activists in the Syrian Revolution

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A recent raid on a Syrian rights NGO demonstrates the increased role of, and dangers for, the growing number of female activists in the Syrian Revolution, according to IJMA3-The Arab ICT Organization.

According to staff and visitors at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, they were sitting in their office on Thursday, February 16, carrying out their daily work of investigating and reporting on violations of citizens’ rights for free expression, they were interrupted by a knock at the door. Armed men in black uniforms had blocked the streets and were entering the building, arresting the sixteen people inside without announcing charges or distinguishing staff from family or visitors. All cell phones, identification cards, documents and computers were confiscated. Those arrested were blindfolded and taken to a detention facility run by the Syrian Air Force’s Intelligence service. On Saturday, February 18, the women were released, on the condition that most of them return each day for further investigation. The men remain in custody.

The Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression is a Syrian-based organization addressing media rights. A significant amount of its work is carried out by women. My organization – IJMA3-The Arab ICT Organization (IJMA3) - recently spoke with one of the Center’s directors who had recently been released. She asked for her identity to be concealed due to safety concerns. She and other bloggers, activists and family members of those arrested reached out to IJMA3 and visited our headquarters in Lebanon. As the voice of the region’s ICT communities, IJMA3 has given voice to many of the activists organizing the Arab Spring. The Center hoped that IJMA3 would be able to tell their story.

During a conversation with IJMA3, the Center director said that the Intelligence forces arrived at the Center around 10:30 a.m., weapons in hand. They arrested everyone present, including the Center’s founder Mr. Mazen Darwish. The arresting officers refused to present official charges or certify their identity. Based on their conversations, Center staff determined they were members of the Air Force Intelligence. Center staff were told only that they were arrested based on orders from high officials, but were not shown any documentation. They were also told that Intelligence had received information a terrorist cell was operating from the building. “But people who come every day, nine to five, in public can’t be organizing something very confidential. Not from downtown Damascus, in plain view,” the Director told IJMA3. “It was a very weak reason.”

In the same conversation with the Center director, she reported that as they were herded onto waiting trucks, all blindfolded and the men’s hands bound, the Intelligence forces closed off the street and announced to the crowd that anyone who got close would be shot. After arriving at the military detention facility, still blindfolded and bound, they were searched again. With the blindfolds on, there was no way for them - women included - to know who was performing the searches and who else was in the room, except by voice. One employee reported that Mr. Darwish was soaked in cold water, standing outside. The women could also hear their male colleagues and husbands being tortured and shouting from other rooms.

This harsh treatment comes as the regime fears drawing international attention to the arrests of the bloggers and other dissidents that the Center has investigated and reported, and the ongoing international uproar about the attacks on journalists in the country.

The Syrian regime has attempted to portray the violence as a sectarian civil conflict between Sunni fundamentalists against Alawites and other minorities. However, the Center is a non-sectarian, non-political organization. The Center director, in her conversation with IJMA3, said Mr. Darwish, the head of the Center, and several of the women are Alawite, working alongside and even married to Sunnis. The cross-sectarian marriages and friendships represented at the Center contradict the government’s assertions that it is simply trying to stop a religious war between Sunni and Alawite. Instead, the arrests were politically motivated against a moderate, non-sectarian organization.

What is remarkable about the current situation in Syria is the high level of women’s involvement. Journalist Nir Rosen, who reported recently from Syria, said, “In Damascus and in private universities I have met many female activists and organizers, including Alawites and Druze. Some have been arrested or threatened. […] Women have urged husbands and sons to join demonstrations in spite of fears for their safety.” Rosen reported that “even in the most conservative areas […] there are women’s demonstrations or a crowd of women in the back of protests chanting along.” Female activists often wear the hijab to protect their identities as much as tradition. Other women reported that during armed clashes between protestors and the government, they fear rape if they are captured.

Women have taken more leadership roles in the organization and support of the uprising, according to IJMA3 Secretary General Nizar Zakka. One woman reported during an interview that she was arrested from her university after organizing protests and distributing leaflets. At the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, husbands and wives worked alongside each other, taking equal risks for freedom of expression and democracy. Mr. Darwish’s wife was arrested with him, the Center’s Director reported, as well as another husband and wife. The arrests demonstrate the regime’s strong reaction against women they perceive as undermining its strength. The women at the Center were subjected to abuse alongside the men, an uncommon step even for security forces in the Arab world. One of the Center’s staff who was arrested, blogger Razan Ghazzawi, has attracted international media attention for her arrests after reporting rights violations, according to The Guardian.

Zakka pointed out that Syrian women are playing an important role in the opposition movement. Women such as Ghazzawi, Attasi and many more have led protest movements against the regime. At a local level, women have participated with absolute equality during the protests, and have faced the same dangers and punishments as their male colleagues. Zakka said women in the Syrian uprising have received harsher treatment than in other Arab Spring protests and many protesters fear women will be shot or captured. Despite these risks, women have continued as outspoken advocates and political activists. Women’s involvement at this level has created a more moderate and peaceful protest movement, not the Islamist-led revolt the regime hopes to portray, he continued. The arrests at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression show that the regime has increased its efforts to quell moderate, non-sectarian women’s participation, recognizing it as a credible threat. With its unprecedented leadership role for women, the Syrian revolution could be a transformational moment for women and democracy in the Arab world. A new role for women in the Arab world may begin in Syria.

Even after their release, the women remain at risk. The Center’s director, working from safe houses in Lebanon, expressed fear for family members and her colleagues’ wider network of friends. Everyone worried that pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon and other extensions of the Syrian regime could reach out and hurt them. They have tried to keep their identities hidden and minimized the details they provided, worried about their colleagues left in jail. Still, they felt the need to tell the world what has happened, knowing that global awareness might prevent the regime from hurting their colleagues and could pressure the regime into releasing innocent citizens. The international community, particularly fellow NGOs, have offered support for the Center, and moral support is effective in helping to protect its staff. The Center started as a local NGO but, with its recognition as an official UN consultant and the support from other nonprofits globally, they now consider themselves part of the international community.

IJMA3, along with other civil society and private sector organizations, officially condemns the arrests at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and the ongoing persecution of Internet freedom activists. IJMA3 continues to support the Center and other bloggers, journalists and cyber-dissidents exercising the right to freedom of expression online, and encourages the international community to speak out immediately and forcefully against these abuses, to persuade the Syrian regime to release the men still in custody and stop future arrests of cyber-dissidents. With this support, and the bravery of Syrian women and men who have spoken out against violations of freedom of expression, perhaps they can avoid the next knock on the door.

About IJMA3-The Arab ICT Organization
IJMA3-The Arab ICT Organization (IJMA3) is an international non-governmental non-profit organization headquartered in Beirut, Lebanon and with offices in Baghdad and Washington DC, USA consisting of a consortium of more than 16 national ICT association members from countries across the MENA region. As the regional voice of the ICT industry, IJMA3 is dedicated to advocating policies that advance the industry's growth and development; facilitating international trade and investment in ICT products and services; and harnessing ICT toward the fulfillment of critical regional development challenges. IJMA3 is a member of, and regional representative for the MENA and Central Asia regions for the World IT and Services Alliance (WITSA), an international body representing the interests of the ICT industry globally, for which IJMA3’s Secretary-General serves as a Vice Chairman of WITSA.

IJMA3-USA is a 501(c)(3) organization based in Washington, D.C. that brings together diverse stakeholders in pursuit of policies that support Arab ICT and Internet freedom, bolster civil society, and create growth opportunities and new partnerships for Arab ICT companies. IJMA3-USA is closely allied with its sister organization, IJMA3 - The Arab ICT Organization, based in the Arab region. IJMA3 is a non-governmental umbrella organization representing 19 national ICT associations from across the Middle East and North Africa. Together, IJMA3 and IJMA3-USA work to advocate policies that advance the ICT industry’s growth and development; facilitate international trade and investment in ICT products and services; and harness ICT towards the fulfillment of critical development challenges.

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