Robert Fisk: Silenced by the men in white socks

The Damascus Spring has presaged no golden summer for Syria

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Shut them up. Accuse them. Imprison them. Stop them talking. Why is it that this seems to have become a symbol of the Arab – or Muslim – world? Yes I know about our Western reputation for free speech; from the Roman Empire to the Spanish inquisition, from Henry VIII to Robespierre, from Mussolini and Stalin to Hitler, even – on a pitiable scale – to Mr Anthony Blair. But it's getting hard to avoid the Middle East.

When Egyptian women cry "Enough!", they are sexually abused by Mubarak's cops. When Algerians demand to know which policemen killed their relatives, they are arrested for ignoring the regime's amnesty. When Benazir Bhutto is murdered in Rawalpindi, a cloak of silence falls over the world's imams. Pontificating about the assassination in Pakistan, Shaikh es-Sayed, who runs one of Canada's biggest mosques, expressed his condolences to "families of beloved brothers and sisters who died in the incident [sic]". Asked why he didn't mention Bhutto's name, he replied: "Why? This is not a political arena. This is about religion. That's politics." Well, it certainly is in Syria. George Bush – along with M. Sarkozy – has been berating Damascus for its lack of democracy and its human rights abuses and its supposed desire to gobble up Lebanon and "Palestine" and even Cyprus. But I always feel that Syria had a raw deal these past 90 years.

First came the one-armed General Henri Gouraud, who tore Lebanon off from Syria in 1920 and gave it to the pro-French Christians. Then Paris handed the Syrian coastal city of Alexandretta to the Turks in 1939 – sending survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide into exile for a second time – in the hope that Turkey would join the Allies against Hitler. (The Turks obliged – in 1945!) Then in the Six Day War, Syria lost the Golan Heights – subsequently annexed by Israel. Far from being expansionist, Syria seems to get robbed of land every two decades.

On the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000 – it's extraordinary how, like Sharon now that he is comatose, we come to like these old rogues once they've departed – we were told there was to be a "Damascus Spring". I always thought this a bit dodgy. I'd experienced the Lebanon Spring and read about the Ukraine Spring and I'm old enough to remember the Prague Spring, which ended in tears and tanks. And sure enough, the Damascus Spring presaged no golden summer for Syria.

Instead, we've gone back to the midnight knock and the clanging of the cell door. Why – oh why – must this be so? Why did the Syrian secret police have to arrest Dr Ahmed Thoma, Dr Yasser el-Aiti, Jabr al-Shufi, Fayez Sara, Ali al-Abdulla and Rashed Sattouf in December, only days after they – along with 163 other brave Syrians – had attended a meeting of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change? The delegates had elected Dr Fida al-Hurani head of their organisation. She, too, was arrested, and her husband, Dr Gazi Alayan, a Palestinian who had lived in Syria for 18 years, deported to Jordan.

The net spread wider, as they say in police reports. The renowned Syrian artist Talal Abu Dana was arrested up in Aleppo, his studio trashed and his paintings destroyed. Then on 18 February, Kamel al-Moyel from the lovely hill town of Zabadani, on the steam train route from Damascus, was picked up by the boys in white socks. A point of explanation here. Almost all Middle East Moukhabarat men – perhaps because a clothing emporium has won a concession for the region's secret policemen – wear white socks. The only ones who don't are the Israeli variety, who wear old baseball hats.

Needless to say, the Syrian prisoners were not ignored by their regime. A certain Dr Shuabi, who runs a certain Data and Strategic Studies Centre in Damascus, appeared on al-Jazeera to denounce the detainees for "dealing with foreign powers". Dr al-Hurani suffered from angina and was briefly sent to hospital before being returned to the Duma jail. But when the prisoners were at last brought to the Palace of Justice, Ali al-Abdulla appeared to have bruises on his body. Judge Mohamed al-Saa'our – the third investigative judge in Damascus, appointed by the ministry of interior – presided over the case at which the detainees were accused of "spreading false information", forming a secret organisation to overthrow the regime, and for inciting "sectarian and racist tendencies". The hearing, as they say, continues.

But why? Well, back on 4 December, George Bush met at the White House – the rendezvous was initially kept secret – the former Syrian MP Mamoun al-Homsi (who currently lives, dangerously perhaps, in Beirut) with Amar Abdulhamid, a member of a think thank run by a former Israeli lobbyist, and Djengizkhan Hasso, a Kurdish opposition activist. Nine days later, an official "source" leaked the meeting to the press. Which is about the time the Syrian Moukhabarat decided to pounce. So whose idea was the meeting? Was it, perhaps, supposed – once it became public – to provoke the Syrian cops into action?

The Damascus newspaper Tichrine – the Syrian equivalent of Private Eye's Rev Blair newsletter – demanded to know why Washington was showing such concern for human rights in Syria. Was not the American-supported blockade of one and a half million Gaza Palestinians a violation of the rights of man? Had not the Arabs seen all too clearly Washington's concern for the rights of man in Abu Ghraib and Guanatanamo? All true. But why on earth feed America's propaganda machine (Syria as the centre of Hamas/ Hiz-bollah/Islamic Jihad terror, etc) with weekly arrests of middle-aged academics and even, it transpires, the vice-dean of the Islamic studies faculty at Damascus University?

Of course, you won't find Israel or the United States engaged in this kind of thing. Absolutely not. Why, just two months ago, the Canadian foreign minister, Maxime Bernier, discovered that a confidential document sent to Canadian diplomats included a list of countries in which prisoners risked being tortured – and the names of America and Israel were on the list! Merde! Fortunately for us all, M. Bernier knew how to deal with such pernicious lies. The document, he announced, "wrongly includes some of our closest allies. It doesn't represent the opinion or the policy of the (Canadian) government". Even though, of course, the list is correct.

But M. Bernier managed to avoid and close down the truth, just as Mr Mubarak does in Cairo and President Bouteflika does in Algiers and just as the good Shaikh es-Sayed did in Toronto. Syria, according to Haitham al-Maleh, a former Syrian judge, claims there are now almost 3,000 political prisoners in Syria. But how many, I wonder, are there in Algeria? Or in Egypt? Or in the hands – secret or otherwise – of the United States? Shut them up. Lock them up. Silence.

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