Exodus

*Hermiz Shilman* is one of nearly half a million Iraqis living as refugees in Syria without income or prospects for a better life.

Hugh Macleod

Nearly half a million Iraqi refugees are now living in unsustainable conditions in Syria. According to aid agencies in Damascus, it is a socio-economic crisis resulting from the US-led war on Iraq that the international community continues to play down.

‘The international community must give the situation urgent attention, planning and action in order to avoid a new exodus,’ wrote Abdel Hamid el-Ouali, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Syria in the first comprehensive report by international aid agencies into the plight of Iraqi refugees in Syria since the start of the US-led war on Iraq in March 2003. The report – published in June – concluded that an estimated 450,000 Iraqis in Syria ‘are facing aggravated difficulties’ related to their ‘ambiguous legal status and unsustainable income.’

‘I was working [in Iraq] with the Americans as a translator for $20 a day,’ said 71-year-old Hermiz Shilman, a member of the Chaldean sect of Catholic Christians, while he sat by the side of the road in the Damascus suburb of Jeramana. ‘They came to my house – they were Iraqis no doubt – and they said: “You are an old man. We are not going to kill you. But if you do not leave your job, we will kill you.” So I brought my two daughters and my son to Syria. Now we are just sitting here, like gypsies. We do nothing.’

The report warned of increasing prostitution among young Iraqi women, some as young as 12 years old, and found evidence of ‘organized networks dealing with the sex trade’.

Local NGOs put the estimated Iraqi community in Syria at 800,000: the majority of them children under the age of 18 living in the suburbs of Damascus in cramped conditions with few prospects for education or employment. Before the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003, the number of Iraqis living in Syria was estimated at 100,000. A tally by Washington-based NGO the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, published on 14 June 2006, counted 644,500 Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan in 2005 – equivalent to around 2.5 per cent of Iraq’s population. The total is triple the number of Iraqis who were living as refugees in Syria and Jordan in 2004 and represents an exodus of Iraqis from the violence that has scarred their country over the past year.

Ann Maymann, a protection officer at the UNHCR in Damascus, sums up the situation: ‘Who wants to say there is a refugee crisis in Syria and Jordan? Because if they say that they admit that the US-led war created the conditions for this crisis.’

*Hugh Macleod*

Tortured justice

This February, in the Military Court in Damascus, 18 Kurds stood trial for 'activity against the authority of the state' for their alleged role in a riot in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli in March 2004. All 18 told the judge they had been tortured with electricity while in prison. One man said he had been sodomized with a piece of wood and said he had the medical report to prove it.

Such assaults on criminal justice seem to have little impact on the outcome of trials. Also in February, six men on trial for similar charges brought eyewitnesses who said the accused could not have been in the city at the time of the riot. All six were sent to prison. 'The court makes a decision before the trial begins,' explains Anwar Bunni, a leading Syrian human rights lawyer.

These cases highlight some of the critical issues at the heart of human rights in Syria. The country has had emergency laws in place since the ruling Ba'ath Party's rise to power 42 years ago. Under the laws, the security services can charge people for 'opposing the party's revolutionary goals' or 'harming the state's reputation'. 'If you make a joke against the President you go to jail for six months,' says Bunni, whose three brothers and a sister served a total of 60 years between them in Syrian prisons for expounding communist ideas during the late 1970s.

Human rights lawyers estimate Syria holds around 2,000 political prisoners, including 200 Kurds, more than 50 of whom began a hunger strike on 8 February 2005 to protest against the torture they say they have suffered in jail. An Amnesty International report in September 2004 said '38 types of torture and ill-treatment' had been documented as being used in Syria.

'Exception courts' such as the Military Court (to which journalists, the public and lawyers are allowed access) or the Supreme State Security Court (to which they are not) are widely used. According to the UN Human Rights Committee they are 'incompatible with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Syria is a state party'.

However, into such darkness some faint rays of light have recently shone. In December 112 political prisoners, mostly members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, were released - the largest single amnesty in three years. The following day Syrian police dispersed more than 100 activists who blocked traffic in central Damascus. It was the first time SANA, the official state-run news agency, had ever reported such a civic demonstration. Two months later a further 55 political prisoners, who had spent up to 20 years in prison, were released.

'In 1992 we spoke but nobody listened. We were lonely in front of this regime. But things are changing,' says Bunni, ' particularly because of the intense pressure Syria is coming under from outside. 2005 will be a very important year for human rights in this region. But any change must come from a change in the laws. Until now, this is not happening.'

Hugh Macleod

Taking control in Chiapas

If the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is the controlling mind of future trade in Central America, then Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) – a 25-year, $20-billion, infrastructure development project, building roads, ports, pipelines and electrical grids – will be its flesh and bones. Thousands of kilometres of new roads will turn Central America, so long a bottleneck to Pan-American trade, into a super highway. The link will boost the region’s economy to the benefit of 65 million people – around half of whom are classified as living in extreme poverty. Or so say the Plan’s supporters. Others, like Mexico’s indigenous Zapatista movement, are not so certain. They agree that the PPP will unlock the rich resources of the region. But they believe the big winners will be local √©lites and wealthy foreign companies. Central America will be turned into a giant export zone while native people and poor farmers are displaced from their land. Critics like Mexican economist Miguel Pickard complain that the PPP’s creators – bureaucrats at the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and the Mexican Government – created the scheme without a single consultation with the people who would be affected. ‘The PPP was born with several problems,’ says Pickard. ‘Not the least of which was its antiquated notion that people, especially the poor, are objects of development, never its subjects.’ In the misty highlands of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, the Zapatista movement that rose up a decade ago to resist the original North American Free Trade Agreement has now turned its attention to the PPP. They are determined not to be marginalized by this new project of economic integration. It began with the arrest and acquittal of two _campesinos_ in Chiapas in September 2003. When Juan Santiz Gomez and his son Fernando Santiz Perez were charged with illegal logging by Chiapas state police their case turned out to be a landmark test for the local _Junta de Buen Gobierno_ (Council of Good Government). These new regional councils were established across Chiapas a few months beforehand to consolidate political power in the autonomous communities. The defence argued that the two men fell under the governance of the _Junta_, not Mexican state law. And since they had applied to the council for a permit to harvest trees they had done nothing illegal. Judge Carmen Velazco’s ruling in favour of the _Junta_ made history. The Zapatista-led communities proved for the first time that they could enforce legal control over their resources. Of course, the PPP will not go away. Over the past year the Mexican Government has poured thousands of new troops into Chiapas in an effort to prepare the area for ‘development’. Says Miguel Pickard: ‘ The PPP continues to be a custom-designed initiative for big-money interests and for the strategic interests of the United States.’ In response the Zapatistas have almost tripled the number of their own recruits in Chiapas. It sounds like a conflict about to bubble to the surface. But there may yet be a twist to the tale. Before the tropical forests start to fall the Zapatista legal victory and the notion of regional sovereignty could challenge the very foundations on which the FTAA will operate. The battle might no longer be military versus rebel, but corporation versus local council.

Mugh MacLeod is a freelance journalist in London, UK.