Female Activists at Syrian Centre for Media Speak Out

The Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, SCMFE, is a non-governmental organisation that aims to defend the freedom of belief and expression, in cooperation with government institutions and civil society organizations. SCMFE had continued its work over the past year, and issued several reports about the arrest and harassment to which journalists have been subject during their coverage of the Syrian revolution, before it was closed by security forces on February 16, 2012. A detailed article about the SCMFE’s work is available here.

“My grandmother died yesterday evening, so I filed a request with Air Force Intelligence, AFI, asking for permission to let me be with my mother, at least during the first three days of mourning, but they only agreed to give me one,” wrote Razan Ghazzawi, an activist and SCMFE employee on her personal Facebook page. Ghazzawi confirms that the female employees at SCMFE are forced to attend the FI Al- Mazzeh branch for five hours a day, except for Fridays, which are weekend days in Syria.

“We know neither the reason behind these visits nor anything about what will become of us,” Ghazzawi said. “The centre’s director, Mazen Darwish, and [other] employees have been under arrest since February 16, and there is no information about their psychological or physical health.”

In a move that civil society activists condemned, AFI members accompanied by an armed squad raided the office of SCMFE, which is licensed in France and works quasi-publicly in Damascus. The security force arrested everyone present: Mazen Darwish, Yara Badr, Razan Ghazzawi, Rita Dioub, Hani al-Zaytani, Sanaa al-Zaytani, Mayyada al-Khalil, Abdel Rahman Hammadeh, Hussein Ghureir, Mansour al-Omari, Bassam al-Ahmad, Ayham Ghazzaoul, Javan Farso and two visitors, Hanadi Zahlout and Shadi Yazbek.

One of the female SCMFE activists said that security members, who did not produce any search or arrest warrants, showed up at around two o’clock in the afternoon. They then collected ID cards and mobile telephones from everyone and asked them to gather in one room until four in the afternoon, when everyone was taken by a bus to AFI’s headquarters.

Maha al-Siblani, the executive director of SCMFE, was interrogated at the centre instead of being taken away because she holds both a diplomatic passport and the British citizenship. The interrogation focused on the activities carried out by SCMFE and the content of computer files at headquarters.

“AFI interrogated me first, and then the interrogation started all over again with the political security,” Siblani said. “I stayed held up at the centre until nine in the evening, then they released me after they kept my mobile phone and other personal belongings.” Siblani was able to leave the country.

The female employees at the centre – Yara Badr, Sanaa al-Zaytani, Mayyada al-Khalil, Razan Ghazzawi and visitor Hanadi Zahlout – were released, but they have to attend the AFI headquarters everyday from nine o’clock in the morning until two o’clock in the afternoon.

“During the first [few] days we were interrogated about the centre’s activities and its sources of financing,” says one of the female employees at SCMFE. “But after a week, we started going to the headquarters and sat in an office from morning until around three in the afternoon without being asked any questions or being bothered by anyone. We’re also under arrest, but we sleep at home.”

A civil society activist confirmed that security members still occupy the centre, located on May 29 street in downtown Damascus, where they stay day and night, probably waiting to arrest potential visitors.

Before its employees were arrested, SCMFE, in the person of its director Darwish, received the Human Dignity Award from the Roland Berger Foundation, which reserved its 2011 awards for the Arab revolts. Darwish could not attend the ceremony in Germany because he has been banned from travelling since 2007, hence his portrait was placed in the seat where was supposed to sit. At the end of the letter he addressed to the audience, he wrote, “Allow me to dedicate your distinguished award to the great Syrian people who made me feel proud to be a Syrian citizen.”

This is the third time that SCMFE’s headquarters has been shut down under President Bashar al-Assad. In 2005, it was shut down for the first time and everything inside confiscated. The second time, in September 2009, a joint force from the General Intelligence and the Damascus police in the presence of the mayor of Al-Mazzeh, shut down Darwish’s office and took all the centre’s possessions, without presenting any legal notice.