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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Syrian doctor jailed for opposing Assad faces prison again, for criticising Erdogan

A civil war which began for demands for basic rights like free speech is ending without much changing

A Syrian man rides a motorcycle past a destroyed building in Jisr al-Shughur, in Idlib, on September 4, 2018. AFP
A Syrian man rides a motorcycle past a destroyed building in Jisr al-Shughur, in Idlib, on September 4, 2018. AFP

A Syrian doctor who was imprisoned for criticising President Bashar Al Assad again faces prison, this time for lambasting Turkey’s leader.

Nine years ago Mahmoud Al Sayeh, a 48-year-old doctor from Al Bab in northern Syria, was jailed for criticising Assad. He was eventually released and has since been struggling to survive in a civil war that has claimed the lives of his entire family. Last month, a judge installed by the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition in Idlib sentenced him to five months’ prison for online posts he made denouncing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s involvement in Syria.

Dr Al Sayeh, who has been in hiding since he was bailed in June, is unrepentant. “I’m not going to bow to dictatorship ever again,” he said. “Not after all this massive bloodshed in my country and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.”

The doctor’s story, told to the The National over Skype, highlights the ongoing cost paid by civilians in a seven-year civil war that began with demands for basic human rights. And as Dr Al Sayeh keeps campaigning for free speech, what may be the bloodiest phase of the war is approaching, as Syrian government forces prepare a final assault on Idlib.

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Even before the Syrian uprising, Dr Al Sayeh faced the brutality of his government, being imprisoned for five months in 2007 in the notorious Seydnaya prison near Damascus for criticising Assad online.

The prison later gained infamy as a slaughterhouse in which up to 13,000 political prisoners were hanged between 2011 and 2015. Dr Al sayeh meanwhile joined the uprising. As protesters reclaimed the streets of Syria in early 2011, the orthopaedic doctor began helping injured protesters shot by security forces.

His work with rebels drew the attention of the security forces though and the doctor went into hiding, moving between the Aleppo countryside and his hometown. But when ISIS took over Al Bab in 2014, Dr Al Sayeh fled with his family to Idlib.

The province has sheltered hundreds of thousands of fleeing Syrians over the past seven years, with half of the province’s 2 million civilians displaced from other parts of the country. But Idlib’s rolling hills are now set to be the final battleground of the war as Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, prepare an offensive against Turkish-backed rebels.

Turkey entered the war with Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 with Turkish troops building observation points and installing local proxies across the Idlib countryside. Since then, ostensibly autonomous local councils have zealously implemented Ankara’s agenda, including prohibitions against insulting the Turkish leader.

In March last year, the war drew closer to Dr Al Sayeh again. A Russian airstrike hit the Qusour neighbourhood of Idlib city where the doctor and his family were living. All seven of his children, his wife, mother, and brother were killed, he said over Sykpe, his voice heavy and slow.

"I was the only survivor among all residents of the building, but I was injured badly,” he said, of the airstrike which killed 22 people.

But his troubles weren’t over, as his outspoken political views were again attracting the wrong kind of attention. In January, he made a series of posts online critical of the Turkish president. “Erdogan is all lightning and thunder but no rain,” he wrote in one, referring to what he saw as empty promises from Ankara.

In April, he was arrested by Al Hamzat brigade Euphrates Shield security forces. “They took me to their base where the investigation started, combined with beating and insults," Dr Al Sayeh said.

The interrogating officer was a Turkish officer from MIT (Ankara’s intelligence agency), Dr Al Sayeh says, who first accused him of belonging to a terrorist organisation before raising his tweets criticising Erdogan.

Dr Al Sayeh was eventually released on bail, but in August, Syrian judges installed under Euphrates Shield convicted him in absentia for “insulting a foreign president”. They sentenced him to five months imprisonment and fined him TL 5000 (Dh 2,775) to be paid to the Turkish government.

The fine was for “the psychological and social damages I caused [President Erdogan] by the things I tweeted," Dr Al Sayeh said.

Despite remaining in hiding, Dr Al Sayeh says he remains unbowed.

“I'm not engrossed in this court's decision specifically. My fight is not personal. I'm more interested in removing any laws that restrict public freedom and turn officials into supreme beings."

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