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Syria Dispatch #3: prisoner release; attack on M. Agnes; Homs project
In my previous dispatches I withheld some information from you. Over the last four months I have been in touch with Dr. Mohja Kahf, who is active in the Syrian Nonviolence Movement. Dr. Kahf has produced some excellent background material. It is not unbiased, in my opinion, but very informative nonetheless, and I have great respect for her work.
As early as January, she also began to compile a list of prisoners of conscience held by the Assad regime. By the end of April, the list had 72 names on it, and I took it with me with the intention to petition for their release. Dr. Kahf assured me that the list had been carefully vetted so that it contained only political prisoners that had engaged in nonviolent activity, sometimes including civil disobedience, sometimes not even that.
I did not inform you previously because protocol dictates that the delegation must first agree to present the petition, and then consider whether public disclosure is in the interest of the prisoners and at what point in the negotiations for their release. I am now free to disclose this news because the Minister of Justice, Dr. Najm al-Ahmad, announced in his meeting with the Mussalaha delegation on Thursday, May 9, that the government had in principle approved the release of all the prisoners on the list, pending review of their cases.
The only reason I did not put this information in screaming headlines is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we are awaiting word of the review. If the government wants to make a strong impression of its good will, it will release all 72 at one time before the end of the week, in which case it will be big news. If it decides not to release all of them, it will probably do so in stages, without a lot of fanfare. Let us hope.
In a second bit of news, a vehicle carrying our primary host and delegation organizer, Mother Agnes-Mariam of the Cross, was attacked by gunmen on the road just outside Damascus. Three bullets penetrated the vehicle but thankfully hit no one. It happened just outside the “secure” areas. I wish I had more information, but will forward it as available. Was it a random attack that could have happened to any vehicle in that area or is there any reason to think that Mother Agnes was a target? I don’t know, but I would be inclined to think that the attackers did not know who passengers were. Additional information may shed light on this question.
Finally, delegation members Mel Duncan and Tiffany Easthom of Nonviolent Peaceforce confided with me before my return home that they had been having private meetings in order to arrange an unarmed peacekeeper accompaniment program in and near Homs. That program is now approaching implementation, with possible sponsorship from Mussalaha and participation of members of the delegation that extended their stay for that purpose. I have few details at this time, but I spoke to Mother Agnes earlier today, and she is thinking in terms of a semi-permanent international peace delegation.
The developments remind me a little of the beginnings of the International Solidarity Movement, when the third international delegation became a permanent volunteer presence starting in March, 2002. Exciting times. Exciting possibilities.
For additional news see the excellent report of delegation member Father Dave Smith on his website.
In the picture, the delegation meets with the Minister of Justice and presents a petition for the release of 72 non-violent activists
Paul Larudee for the FPM Team