Monday, August 15, 2005

Even More on Khasnawi and the Kurds by Joe Pace

Joe Pace sent me this article about the Khaznawi murder and stituation of the Kurds that he wrote two months ago. It is excellent and adds new details, which the professional reporters missed.

The Daily Star of Lebanon "refused to publish it because they were afraid of Syrian retribution," Joe wrote me. He added, "It is still sticking in my craw because i spent a week in Qamashli dodging in and out of activists' houses, hoping that security wouldn't take note of the foreigner." They did ultimately notice him and he was interrogated for a few hours. He later had his apartment searched in Damascus. Everyone was polite, but security wanted to be sure he wasn't a trouble maker. Joe, the most intrepid reporter in Syria, is back on the beat, Syria Comment is happy to report, bringing us all the news that's fit to print, and even some that isn't, it would seem!

Joe also added this observation about Syria's latest strategy for dealing with the Kurds in his email today:

By the way, i spoke to a few friends of mine from Qamashli last week. it seems that the head of the mukhabarat, Ali Mamluk, held a meeting with kurdish leaders in the north and asked them what their demands were. they were assurances made (though from what i can tell, they were vague) about nationalizing the kurds and implementing a regional development plan. my assessment is that the regime's strategy is two-fold. first, enfeeble and divide the kurdish opposition into two camps--the skeptics who will continue their agitation, and the more credulous who will suspend their activism while they wait for the government to deliver on its promises. given how prone to splitting this opposition is, it would not suprise me if some of the party leaderships split in the next few months on the basis of how to proceed in the face of the regime's gaurantees. the second aim is to draw the kurdish opposition away from the arab opposition by portraying the regime as the only negotiating partner capable of delivering on kurdish demands.
Here is his article:

Prominent Sheikh's Murder Indicates That Syria is Still in the Assassination Business
By Joe Pace

On May 10, the prominent Kurdish Sheikh, Ma'shuq Khaznawi, received a call on his cell phone. The unknown caller told him to await a car in front of his office. According to two of the Sheikh's sons, as he left the office his last words to his colleague were "when are the security forces going to stop pestering me?" Minutes later he stepped into the car and disappeared. His body was found three weeks later on the other side of Syria.

In the months preceding his disappearance, harassment from security agents had become such a source of anxiety that Khaznawi took to calling his sons every hour to assure them he hadn’t been arrested. Khaznawi's sons began to suspect the government's complicity when the day after the disappearance they tried to get a listing of all the numbers that called the Sheikh's cell. A normal procedure that usually takes five minutes and costs about a dollar, the communications office told them they couldn't access the numbers without a permit from the security agencies.

Khaznawi's sons and several Kurdish opposition figures have since called for an investigation of the murder, accusing the government of assassination.

According to the government, the case is all but closed. Investigators claim to have established a motive and captured two of the five perpetrators. The day after Khaznawi's body turned up, two suspects described on state television how they, along with three others, surveilled the Sheikh in Qamashli and Damascus before kidnapping him in front of his office.

According to the confession, they took him to an apartment where they drugged him and drove him to Allepo where he was smothered with a pillow by Abd-al-Razzaq, the driver of Khaznawi's elder brother. The body was then driven to Der A-Zor where it was dumped into a shallow grave.

The professed motive was religious. "We have killed Sheikh Khaznawi because he has departed from the religious way of his father…and prejudiced it in addition to his appearance at the satellite channels, a matter that poses as a deviation from the way," one of the suspects said.

Khaznawi was known for his moderation. Friends describe him as an affable man with a quick wit and an open mind. "He believed that everyone should voice their opinion whereas other Sheikhs demand silence and obedience," said Hassan Salih, the head of the Kurdish Yikiti party, who has called for an transparent investigation of the murder. "Other Sheikhs demand you kiss their hand. Khaznawi refused such a practice.

He became too popular for the government to handle." Khaznawi advocated democracy and rights for Syria's 1.7 million Kurds, an estimated 300,000 of which have been deprived of nationality, which means they cannot travel outside the country, hold government jobs, own property, or use public health services. "He called for dialogue between Arabs and Kurds and peoples of different faiths. Nonetheless, he couched his advocacy for Kurdish rights in an Islamic context, something the regime found dangerous," says Sheikh Muhammad Murad, the oldest of Khaznawi's eight sons.

But Khaznawi also invited the ire of some traditional and extremist Islamists. He called for women's rights and never shied away from shaking the hand of a woman, a rare practice among Sheikhs. He called for a separation between religion and government and criticized the resistance in Iraq, calling their activities "suicide operations" instead of "martyrdom operations."

Several months ago, Khaznawi began receiving death threats from Islamic fundamentalists along with MP Muhammad Habash, the Islamic moderate under whom Khaznawi worked. "They warned me and Khaznawi that we were playing with fire," recalls Dr. Habash. (CSM quote) The government has denied that Khaznawi was kidnapped by security agents.

In an Al-Jazeera interview, Islam Dari, the managing editor of the Syrian government-controlled newspaper Tishrin, said "it is not in the interest of Syria to arrest Sheikh Khaznawi for several reasons. First of all, he is a cleric. Secondly, he is Kurdish and has nothing to do with politics." He also proffered Khaznawi's financial problems with his brother as a possible motive for the murder.

The Sheikh's sons dismiss that motive. "The matter was finished long ago. We were living in one city, [our uncle] was living in another. Our father stopping demanding the inheritance." Dr. Habash has also expressed doubt that the government was responsible for the murder.

Habash was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying, "I believe the children are in the eye of the storm and have a desire to accuse the government… [Khaznawi] had good contacts with the regime, government, army, and intelligence. His political activities were not enough to get him killed." But according to Khaznawi's sons and Kurdish opposition figures, there is a litany of motives that might have compelled the regime to dispose of the Sheikh.

Prominent among them might have been Khaznawi's meeting in February with the exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, membership in which has been punishable by death in Syria ever since the regime crushed the movement's insurgency campaign in the early 1980s. Many recall that Ali Abdallah, an activist in the Committee for the Revival of Civil Society, was imprisoned imprisoned for merely reading a message sent by the leader of the Brotherhood in a meeting held by the Jamal al-Attasi Forum for Democratic Dialogue in which members from 14 political forces—including the Ba'ath Party—delivered political statements.

The forum's committee members were all subsequently detained and the forum—the only civil society forum to survive the so-called 2001 "Damascus Winter" clampdown—has been indefinitely discontinued. "If Ali Abdallah was imprisoned for reading an email from the Muslim Brotherhood, imagine the consequences of publicly meeting with its leadership," remarked one Kurdish activist.

The Syrian regime had much cause to fear an alliance between Kurdish groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, which represent the most potent oppositional trends both in terms of organizational capacity and popular support. Shortly after Khaznawi's return to Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood released an unprecedented statement in which they recognized the need to work for a solution to the Kurdish issue, a step which was hailed as a victory in many Kurdish circles.

Further agitating the regime, gave a scathing speech on the anniversary of the death of Farhad Muhammad Ali, a Kurdish activist who died under torture after last year's riots. Khaznawi lambasted the regime's mistreatment of the Kurds and glorified Farhad's death by comparing him to one of the Prophet Muhammad's companions who died under torture when he refused to insult the Prophet. According to Ibrahim Youseff, a Kurdish activist and a close friend of the Khaznawi, after completing the speech, Khaznawi was threatened by security agents. "They told him that he had crossed a red line, that he had declared jihad against the country," he said.

Khaznawi's provocative activities occurred in the context of mounting troubles faced by the regime. Internationally, the regime was humiliated by the forced withdrawal from Lebanon and facing US efforts to execute what political analyst Flynt Leverett has called "regime change on the cheap" through economic and political pressure. Domestically, the regime faced declining oil sales, soaring unemployment, and increasing unrest among the Kurds. Khaznawi visit to Europe in February and his good relations with Western embassies no doubt added to the regime's anxieties.

In April, he gave in an telephone with the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail, in which he was quoted as saying, "Either the regime will change or the regime must go... The reason I can speak out is because the Americans are trying to get rid of dictators and help the repressed." Later that month, Syrian political-intelligence officers convened a meeting in Qamashli to discuss how to deal with the Sheikhs political activities. "The wrote a report saying that the Sheikh had become a source of concern and that they had to get rid of him," says Sheikh Murshid. The day before his arrest, Ibrahim visited him at his office. "I warned him to be careful," he recalls. "I warned him that he had crossed all the red lines. And the next day he disappeared."

The aftermath of Khaznawi's murder has come to be dominated by mystery and contradiction. Khalid Hammud, the chief investigating judge in Damascus, said on state television that the examiners determined the cause of death was "most likely asphyxiation" because the body bore no signs of physical harm.

But Khaznawi's sons claim that the body displayed clear signs of torture, including a broken nose, shattered teeth, and a forehead wound. An Amnesty International Report subsequently listed him as "at least the sixth Syrian Kurd to have died as a result of torture and ill-treatment since March 2004." The sons claim that two they have received information proving that the Sheikh was kidnapped by security forces. One eyewitness placed him inside a security branch days after his disappearance.

The sons also claim to have heard from a doctor working in the military Tishrin hospital who says he saw the Sheikh in a room surrounded by security agents and bearing signs of torture. Perhaps the oddest part of the saga is the mysterious deaths of two of the remaining three suspects. Sa'id Hadeela recently died in a car accident in the northern city of Aleppo. Abd-al-Razzaq, who purportedly carried out the murder, was apparently killed when a train rammed his car which was standing stationary on the tracks. One man who claims to be an eyewitness to the accident said that the body bore no signs of trauma because the train did not strike the driver's seat. Rumors have circulated that he was murdered and his car subsequently placed on the train tracks, but no one has been able to verify these claims. According to several Kurdish sources, when the authorities went to exhume his body for investigation, the coffin was empty.

Later last week, Khaznawi's two eldest sons were summoned to the criminal branch. "They tried to convince us of the validity of the story, but they didn’t give us any evidence," says Murad. "We demanded that they allow lawyers to review the papers from the investigation, but they refuse because the investigation is ongoing. If they have confessions, why is there still an investigation?"

The death of the Sheikh spurred tens of thousands of Kurds to protest on June 5. The protest began as a peaceful march but turned violent when police and Arab tribesman—whom some Kurds have taken to calling "janjaweed" in reference to the nomadic Arabs responsible for the Darfur atrocities—began beating the protesters and looting Kurdish shops. At least 60 people were arrested and six people were killed, including one policeman. Witnesses said that the day before the protests, security agents were photographing the market place and once the protests began they began directing Arab tribesman toward Kurdish shops.

According to Khayredin Murad, the head of the Kurdish Azadi party, one of two parties which organized the protests, the Kurds sustained over four million dollars in stolen goods and property damage. "We demand that all political prisoners be freed and that we be compensated for the financial losses," he said.

The recent Bath Party Conference concluded with hints that the government might grant citizenship to 300,000 stateless Kurds, but few Kurds are optimistic. "Every few years they make these empty promises. Last year, they sent us the Syrian Planning Minister who told us the government would address the problem and nothing happened," says Hassan Salih.

Michal Timo, the spokesman for the Future Kurdish Movement, takes a dimmer view. "This regime is based on a chauvinist ideology that denies the existence of the other. It is incapable of recognizing Kurdish rights and it is incapable of reform."


At 8/16/2005 01:28:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

There are insisting rumors saying that Gebran Tueni and an-nahar are becoming less critical of Syria because Tueni received serious death threats.

A friend of mine who lives on Tueni's street told me that the security was reinforced two weeks ago.

The testimony of John Pace (a very good journalist btw) is not a surprise to me and confirms that the mukhabarat are trying to intimidate the free press in Lebanon.

At 8/16/2005 11:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are over 5500 Syrian Mukhabrat in Lebanon. About 2500 of these arrived after Assads forces left Lebanon.

At 5/22/2007 12:04:00 AM, Blogger Rancher said...

What effect, if any, did Pelosi’s visit have to do with the current crackdown? This is what got me wondering.


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