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Syria's Pursuit of Unhappiness

What kind of man is the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad? (Thumbnail credit Photo credit: Agencia Brasil)

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What kind of man is the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad? He seems softly spoken, likeable, with a sort of nervous laugh. He likes country and western music and feel-good films like the Pursuit of Happyness. He's well educated; he studied at the University of Damascus and the Western Eye Hospital in London. Embracing everyone from the king of Saudi Arabia to US senator John Kerry, he wants peace and love in the Middle East. For over thirty years his family have held positions in the Syrian governmenment; his family is very wealthy; Al-Assad is very powerful. And if you don't like his power, or his love of country and western music, or anything else about him, you can get the bsat al-Reeh - the "flying carpet".

Unfortunately for those who have experienced it, the "flying carpet" is not a premium amusement ride at Syria's number one theme park. It involves tying a detainee to a rectangular wooden plank and stepping on the detainee's legs, hands and stomach. To get the proper "flying" sensation you need to be the one doing the standing and not the one being "flown". If you get air sick, you can try the dulab, the "tire". A common form of torture, the tire involves placing a car tire around a detainees legs, ensuring the bottom of the detainee's feet are exposed. This allows for something old fashioned falqa - beatings on the soles of the feet.

This Al-Assad approved treatment was described in a recent Human Rights Watch report which called for the dissolution of the Syrian State Security Court. The Court is responsible for such acts of torture as the tire and the flying carpet, along with less ingenious forms, like beatings and electrocutions. Thanks to a forty year old state of emergency, the Court is afforded extraordinary powers; it can also prosecute should you insult the president. The HRW report refers to over eight defendants who were imprisoned for insulting the Syrian president. Sixty seven year old Muhamad Walid al-Hussenini made the mistake of insulting al-Assad whilst sitting at a cafe in Damascus. State Security Forces overheard. Al-Husenini is now serving a three year prison sentence. It seems al-Assad is a thin-skinned soul.

Putting your criticisms of al-Assad into print spares you little. Over a 100 websites that discuss political, social and economic issues are currently blocked in Syria. Google and Facebook have been censored in the past. Ahmed Khalif, a Damascus-based lawyer, recently asked: "What kind of free media institutions do we have if they can be blocked with one stroke of a pen without clear reasons?". The answer seems grim. The Security Court does not discriminate against either bedroom bloggers or professional journalists; both are equally prone to human right violations. Twenty-three year-old blogger Tarek Biasi is currently serving a three-year sentence because he "insulted security services" online; sixty one year old Habib Saleh is currently imprisoned for writing articles that "weakened national feeling". Reporters Without Borders has labelled Syria as one of the most repressive attitude towards online journalists. Of course, censorship means the issue of repression is shoved in a tire or flies away on a magic carpet, allowing al-Assad to get away with such a remarks as "we do not have such things as political prisoners".

To his credit, al-Assad admits "we do not say we are perfect". He is a humble kind of guy really. Just a bit misunderstood - John Kerry likes him, why can't everyone else? He likes Dolly Parton and Will Smith, remember? He just wants you to like him - even if it takes a little bit of tough love.

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