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Syria's teenaged prisoners of conscience

The Syrian government has been regularly arresting young people [Malaz Abdulrahman]by Michele Zackheim

The youngest known convicted prisoner of conscience in the world is a Syrian citizen. Her name is Tal al-Mallouhi, and she has been in prison since she was seventeen years old.

And now, three years later, it is horrifyingly obvious that Syria does not have a problem sweeping up schoolchildren and traumatising them for life.

Three weeks ago in Daraa, a fifteen-year-old, a sixteen-year-old, and thirty-eight children who are ten years old were forcibly hauled from their classrooms. They were taken to a notorious military intelligence detention centre called the Palestine Branch.

There was news of their release, but their families have stated that the news was false. And that is not all. Last week fifteen teenagers were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on walls in Daraa.

"The people want the fall of the regime!" they wrote. They are accused of being solely responsible for igniting the turmoil in their city.

Then, in Madaya, a suburb of Damascus, the capital, four seventeen-year-olds, were arrested for spraying anti-government graffiti. They were handcuffed and taken from their classrooms. Their whereabouts are unknown.

'A drop in the cloud'

Will these children be the newest prisoners of conscience? To provide some context, Tal al-Mallhoui's story must be told.

On December 27, 2009, she was forced from her home by Syrian state security officials.

"She was detained," an anonymous Syrian official said, "On the accusation of spying for a foreign country."

Another official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, "She was accused of espionage and sending information to the American embassy in Egypt through her blog."

What kind of information can a seventeen-year-old girl send a foreign government through a blog? What Tal had done, in fact, was to post poems and essays that focused on the suffering of the Palestinians, restrictions on freedom of expression, and her hope for peace in the Middle East.

Here is an illustration of Tal's poetry:

You Will Remain an Example
(In reference to Gandhi)

I will walk with all walking people
And no
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by

This is my Homeland
In which
I have
A palm tree
A drop in the cloud
And a grave to protect me

Two days after Mallhoui's arrest, state security officers raided her family's home in Homs, about a hundred miles north of Damascus. Her computer, computer disks, notebooks, personal documents, and a mobile phone were confiscated.

Detention and diplomacy

Parents of teenagers often feel anxious when their children step out the door. But in Tal's case, she did not even leave her house.

From the safety of her bedroom, through her blog, [ARABIC], she unintentionally created an international incident. She was dragged off to a Damascus detention centre, held incommunicado for nine months, and never charged with a crime.

After a futile attempt to see her daughter at the centre, Mallhoui's mother, Ahed al-Mallouhi, was left in despair. She was confused and distressed, didn't watch where she was going, and was hit by a car.

For two months she was hospitalised with serious injuries. "I'm going crazy," she said. "I have had chronic insomnia since my daughter's arrest. I survive on sleeping pills."

The al-Mallouhis are a well-known Syrian family. The blogger's grandfather, Mohammad Dia al-Mallouhi, served as the minister of state for the People's Assembly and was also a minister under the late president Hafez al-Assad.

Her parents begged the media and human rights organisations not to interfere, as they were attempting to seek their daughter's release through private and diplomatic negotiations.

Prisoner of conscience

On September 1, 2010, increasingly anxious that her daughter was being tortured, Mallhoui's mother sent a direct appeal to the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad: "I plead with you to save my daughter's life. I am not able to describe the disaster that has befallen our entire family and the amount of suffering we are going through."

She did not mention in the letter that Mallhoui suffers from tachycardia, an abnormally accelerated heart rate that can cause a drop in blood pressure and deprive organs and tissues of oxygen.

A month later, on September 30, 2010, family members were allowed their first visit with Mallhoui at Doma Women's Prison, some twelve miles northwest of Damascus. Dosar al-Mallouhi, her father, reported that they found her in good health. Her mother did not comment.

Almost two weeks after the visit to the prison, Tal al-Mallouhi, chained and blindfolded, was brought before the Damascus state security court in a closed session.

She was accused of "divulging information to a foreign state", which meant high treason. The court did not offer any evidence or disclose any details of the reason for her arrest. No lawyers for the defence were present in court. Her parents were not allowed to attend.

Tal al-Mallouhi was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The verdict of the state security court is final and cannot be challenged. The schoolgirl, Tal, is in solitary confinement. She is not allowed visitors, even from her family or a lawyer.

Philip J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs, wrote:

The United States strongly condemns Syria's secret trial of blogger Tal Al-Mallouhi, calls for her immediate release, and rejects as baseless allegations of American connections that have resulted in a spurious accusation of espionage. We call on the Syrian government to immediately release all its prisoners of conscience; and allow its citizens freedom to exercise their universal rights of expression and association without fear of retribution from their own government.

But most human rights organisations have made the decision not to make contact with her family. They are afraid that state security will use this as an excuse to have other family members arrested.

Since the government has not convinced anyone that Mallhoui is a spy, these organisations fear that the Syrian government is searching for any clue or misstep they can find to support their case.

Now that the cameras of the world are focusing on Syria, the families of the children in Daraa and Madaya are throwing caution to the wind.

They are risking the fury of the government by demonstrating, by demanding the release of their children. Will Tal's parents join the challenge to president Bashar Assad? Will the young poet's case be revisited? How will the outrage of the world affect this new and most appalling assault on children?

Michele Zackheim is a member of the Freedom to Write Committee of the PEN American Center.

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