In a letter to President Hafez al-Assad, IPI called on the Syrian government to exercise compassion and release the imprisoned journalist Nizar Nayouf.

Nayouf is close to death in a Syrian military prison after suffering years of torture and denial of adequate medical care. He was arrested on 10 January 1992 and sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labour for being a member of the “unauthorised” Committee for the Defence of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF), and for disseminating “false” information via its monthly newsletter, “Sawt al-Democratiyya” (Democracy’s vote) of which he was editor in Chief.

The arrest of Nayouf came during a massive government crackdown on CDF membership. He was tried by the Supreme State Security Court which hears political cases under emergency as opposed to ordinary law. Therefore, the court in trying Nayouf was not bound by constitutional provisions safeguarding defendant’s rights. Upon being found guilty, Nayouf received the longest possible prison sentence. According to independent observers, the proceedings failed to meet with international standards of fairness. The defence lawyers were prevented from meeting their clients prior to the trial and judges ignored claims by the defendants that they were tortured.

While in prison, Nayouf has been subjected to deplorable conditions and has survived three assassination attempts on his life, by arsenic and other chemicals and by an instigated fight with another inmate. He has been tortured and beaten so severely that he is partially paralysed from the waist down and nearly blind. In addition, he is suffering from Hodgkin’s disease, which is a form of cancer, liver disease, dermatitis and ulcers.

The forms of torture to which Nayouf has been subjected are staggering. He has been tortured with the most excruciating implements, including the “German chair”, a medieval-style rack used to stretch the victim’s spine. He has been thrown into an electrified bath, hung by his feet for two to three hours a day, beaten with an iron pipe and urinated on in a mock “baptism” after refusing to pray before a portrait of the president.

Nayouf is now confined to a tiny isolation cell and can only move about by crawling. In a final attempt to break him, the military authorities have made it clear that he will only receive a life-saving specialist doctor’s treatment if he pledges to refrain from political activity and signs an admission that he made “false” statements about the human rights situation in Syria. He remains defiant.

Since his imprisonment, Nayouf has received many international human rights awards, including a Hellman-Hammett grant from Human Rights Watch, the PEN American Center’s Freedom-to-Write Award and the IPI Press Freedom Hero Award.

In an article by Howard Schneider in the “Herald Tribune”, dated 27 April, the president’s eldest son, Bashar Assad, stated that he was prepared to lobby for reform, notably economic reform. The article alluded to a “flurry of presidential decrees and parliamentary changes”, including changes to the “economic security courts”, liberalisation of rules on holding foreign currency and amendments to the rules on foreign investment.

IPI invited the president to follow Assad’s lead in the areas of freedom of expression and the press, which are both fundamental to the process of economic reform. A first step along this path would be the compassionate act of releasing journalist Nayouf.

When discussing the Internet, Assad stated, “as a point of principle I would like everybody to be able to see everything.” He also said, “the more you see the more you improve.” It is the belief of IPI that these comments also apply to freedom of the press. The right to express oneself, to hold an opinion, even when contrary to the view of one’s government, is a central tenet of any democracy and must be upheld in order for any society to flourish.

IPI also believes that these words hold particular truth for the plight of Nayouf, who remains – half blind and critically ill – in prison. IPI urged the president to release Nayouf, thus allowing him to “see” for the first time in eight years.