Thugs break hands of Syria's top cartoonist for Assad lampoon

Syria's most renowned political cartoonist, who recently drew a sketch comparing President Bashar al-Assad to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, had both his hands broken in an attack yesterday by masked gunmen who dragged the 60-year-old out of his car.

Ali Ferzat, whose satirical art once drew death threats from Saddam Hussein, was treated in hospital. He was attack as he left his Damascus studio at four o'clock yesterday morning.

Mr Ferzat was trailed by a 4x4 with tinted windows, said activists, and one of Mr Ferzat's relatives. Four men then dragged him out of his car, forced him into the Jeep and drove out to a highway on the outskirts of the capital. "We will break your hands so that you'll stop drawing," said the gunmen, the relative told the Associated Press news agency.

Mr Ferzat had used his website to publish a caricature of Mr Assad carrying a packed suitcase and fleeing in a car alongside Colonel Gaddafi. The website, ali-ferzat.com, was inaccessible yesterday. Making a caricature of the President is illegal, under Syrian law. The cartoonist has been honoured with dozens of international exhibitions during his 30-year career.

Ironically, before Bashar al-Assad became President he visited one of Mr Ferzat's shows and saw several cartoons which had been banned in Syria. The future leader reportedly told the cartoonist he saw no problems with the drawings.

Mr Ferzat was an early supporter of Mr Assad when he took power in 2000. He benefited from the so-called "Damascus Spring", when the new President briefly permitted a wave of media liberalisation, and set-up a newspaper called Al-Domari, or the Lamplighter, which became an instant success.

But the publication was soon removed from Syrian newsstands by the Baathist regime. In an interview a few years later, Mr Ferzat warned about the dangers of President Assad continuing in the tyrannical vein of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades.

He told a news website: "If they don't recognise the dangers and if they continue to deprive other national parties of true and effective participation, I foresee a monumental crisis. The regime is in need of total reform and change."

Mr Ferzat is one of the most high-profile victims of the violent security crackdown being inflicted by the Syrian government in response to a five-month uprising aimed at forcing President Assad from power.

Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people have been killed and many thousands have been more arrested and tortured since March, when widespread anti-government protests began.

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