Riad al-Turk is a political opposition leader, lawyer, and human rights activist from Homs, Syria. By many Syrians he is seen as a polarizing figure; often regarded as ‘The Old Man of the Syrian Opposition’. His 50-year long battle against the Syrian regime led to his imprisonment for 18 years; much of it spent in solitary confinement. He was placed in a cell the size of a small elevator, where he was subjected to various forms of physiological abuse. At the age of 93, he continues his battle in protecting the human rights of many Syrians from the crimes of its government. This interview was conducted on 12 August 2023; prior to the recent demonstrations in Sweida, Syria.
CJLPA: Good afternoon, Mr. Riad al-Turk. It is an honor to have the opportunity to interview you for The Cambridge Journal of Law, Politics, and Art. You are an inspiring figure in your work defending the human rights of all Syrians around the world for the last few decades. Much of your life has been spent fighting the Syrian regime; having never backed down after all the obstacles you have faced. You have previously stated that your career as a lawyer was a secondary practice relative to your political career. Before delving into the political aspects of the Syrian conflict we would like to have some insight on the Syrian legal and justice system. Can you tell us a bit more about the Syrian justice system at the time you were a practicing lawyer?
Riad al-Turk: It is difficult to talk about a justice system in Syria. We can say that the concept of justice is absent in Syria, but that’s not what’s important. What is important is that Syrian society constantly aspires towards freedom; freedom from tyranny and from external pressures and interference, and most importantly hope is always there.
In my opinion, talking about laws in Syria is not the correct approach. In Syria there are no laws that prevail, are respected, or achieve equality and justice among citizens. This is a fantasy. You are faced with a tyrannical ruling family that does not need or adhere to any laws and does not wait to derive its legitimacy from its own people, but rather from foreign institutions. A good example comes following the death of the then dictator, Hafez Al Assad. People were looking forward to getting rid of a dictator, and later found themselves facing the process of passing power to his son, Bashar Al Assad, a person who was neither legally nor politically qualified. This was done under the auspices of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who came to Damascus to congratulate Assad Jr. on the smooth transfer of power, granting him international legitimacy.
CJLPA: What was the trial process like? Are there any codified laws victims can point to for protection but which are simply not enforced in court, or do such laws not exist in the first place?
RT: Answering this question requires reconsidering the prevailing laws at the time, which did not provide guarantees for the protection of the accused, especially when the cases raised were cases against the regime. In other words, cases that were of a political nature, or involved in a political position that included direct criticism of the regime. Their old and well-known style is that there were those who sponsored the issue of talking about justice and law, where a certain character holds the position of a public prosecutor who charges the accused, and he is tried as guilty. Justice—in reality—is not available even to the judge. This is an important issue to address. If the independent judiciary were in charge of the trial process, it would be possible to talk about justice. We do not hope for or demand justice from such a regime. It’s an opponent. This is how I look at it.
CJLPA: You began your political career in 1944 by affiliating yourself with the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau)—which, interestingly, was opposed to the Soviet Union. Moreover, you were the Prime Secretary of the party from 1974. You have therefore experienced the political system in Syria prior and after the coup in 1963 and the Assad coup in November 1970. Since the Assad family has taken over Syria, the country has been running under conditions of a ‘state of emergency’. Can you please touch on how the coup changed the political environment for opposing parties to the Baath Party?
RT: Previously, parties had an activity in the political arena. It is possible to talk about the existence of even partial exercise of some freedoms. The real question is: to what extent was this practice influential, and were there forces behind it that ensured its continuity?
In 1949, Hosni al-Zaim carried out a military coup and seized power. Then came many successive military coups. This paved the way for the arrival of Hafez al-Assad as a military figure holding power through the army, which al-Assad turned into an army of minorities. Then Hafez Al Assad began to suppress freedoms, silence people, arrest his opponents, and throw them into prisons, often without trials. In any case, this is a long period of time. There have been many developments. I prefer to leave this task to historians. This would be safer, if we wanted to take a critical look at the development of political life in Syria.
CJLPA: In 1980, you were arrested by the regime and held in political prisons for more than 20 years. You were put in solitary confinement for almost 18 years. Despite the various efforts used by the regime to silence you, they remained unsuccessful. We would like to begin by asking you about the environment of the cell you were placed in. To the best of your ability, how would you describe the prisons in Syria?
RT: Talking about the conditions of my imprisonment is something that has been mentioned previously on more than one occasion. I was imprisoned for almost eighteen years without trial. I was placed in a solitary underground cell with no windows. We can say that it was about my height, it was the size of a small elevator.
I was completely isolated from the outside world. Books and newspapers were prohibited. I was only allowed to go to the toilet three times a day, during which I used the opportunity to search in the waste for the other prisoners’ scraps of paper and newspapers, perhaps finding the remains of a thrown away newspaper, carrying with it some news, or a valuable opportunity to read.
I was also isolated from other prisoners; not being allowed to mix with them. Visits were prohibited, so I had no news about my wife and two daughters. The first visit I was allowed was eleven years into my sentence. The total number of visits I received during my long imprisonment was three visits. I will not talk about physical torture as I did not go through all its types. As for psychological torture, it was about making me absent, abandoned, and forgotten, without any sense of responsibility on their part. After I fell seriously ill, my prison conditions were improved by placing a mattress on the cell floor and allowing some books to be read.
CJLPA: There are various crimes and torture mechanisms that are used in Syrian prisons, most famously, Sednaya Prison; nicknamed ‘The Human Slaughterhouse’. Having experienced almost two decades in prison, what are some of the torture and interrogation methods that are used by officers within in Syrian regime?
RT: The most important description that a Syrian citizen can use to describe the Syrian prisons that passed through during the era of Assad family is as human slaughterhouses that subjected citizens to the ugliest types of systematic torture and humiliation. In these prisons, hundreds of thousands of victims were hidden and tortured. Time may make it difficult to reach the truth about their fate, but our duty is to continue making calls and exerting pressure on the regime to reveal the fate of those forcibly disappeared in its prisons, and to work to prosecute those responsible for these crimes against humanity.
CJLPA: When we speak about these human rights violations such as torture, do the current legal frameworks in place in Syria permit the government to conduct these horrific international crimes or is it a matter of these international crimes occurring behind closed doors?
RT: Laws are usually enacted in order to protect the citizen and guarantee his rights and dignity in his country. As previously mentioned, talking about laws that are respected and implemented in Syria is a fantasy. There is no law that legislates the ruler and his agents to carry out these brutal crimes against his citizens. This is a criminal regime that must be tried, its crimes exposed, and held accountable, no matter how long it takes.
CJLPA: Most people that are subjected to the punishment you faced gave up and conformed to the regime’s wishes. How did you manage to maintain your mental health throughout those years and what advice would you give to anyone who has been through what you have been through?
RT: The answer to this question is thorny. In the face of the difficulties that confront us, we need a vision for life. That vision makes us people of principles. These principles determine our behavior and choices in life. They formulate our vision of the changes happening around us. From my side, and from my personal experience, the important aspect is to have an opinion. This opinion means that you are the owner of a cause and have the principled and moral position that gives a person strength.
This regime is rejected and I cannot reconcile or respond to it. I cannot give in to what it asks for under any circumstances. Withstanding in the face of such pressures is possible and impossible. This may be related to the severity of these pressures. Talking about what is possible and what is not is left to time. Time decides. I resisted time by keeping my mind occupied by drawing with some pebbles, and by reading newspaper clippings over and over again. As for the body, it was exhausted. Perhaps some of the exercises I was doing helped it withstand the harsh conditions of my time in prison.
CJLPA: One of the well-known atrocities that happened under Hafez Al Assad’s watch was the 1982 Hama massacre. The military force commanded by Rifaat Al Assad entered the city of Hama and conducted a series of bombings on buildings with civilian inhabitants. The government’s claimed justification for their ‘military operations’ was the need to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood, disregarding any of the civilian casualties it took to get to that goal. This massacre could be seen as the beginning of a playbook that the Syrian government uses: blaming the bombing of opposition forces on the basis of them attacking terrorist strongholds. This strategy was also used by Bashar Al Assad in the 2011 uprisings. Can you please touch on the power of state propaganda in Syria and how they have taken advantage of religious extremism to paint themselves as the ‘good guys’ or the ‘best option in Syria’?
RT: This is an illusion. They are unable to succeed in justifying their crimes against humanity. They bear responsibility for thousands of victims. Therefore, talking about the fate of these victims, seeking justice to prevail, and demanding that the fate of the disappeared be revealed is a humanitarian and legal issue that has no statute of limitations.
Searching for justifications for this regime is unacceptable, and it is not permissible to give legitimacy to the killers. The regime established itself as an authority. However, it is a condemned authority and their responsibility to these crimes remains. The prosecution of their crimes will continue until justice is achieved for them and their families.
CJLPA: Rifaat Al Assad, leader of the military force that committed the 1982 Hama massacre, was charged and convicted in France for ill-gotten gains. Additionally, there was a criminal investigation in Switzerland into his war crimes. Nonetheless, he still managed to escape back to Syria. Despite his dispute with Rifaat Al Assad, Bashar Al Assad opened the doors for his return to Syria without punishment. How do you feel about Bashar’s behavior in regard to his uncle?
RT: Rifaat Al Assad is convicted for his crimes, and is being prosecuted humanely and legally. As for Bashar, like the proverb says they are birds of a feather. I don’t think there is a big difference between the two. They are part of this family, and they are legally responsible for the massacres committed against the Syrian people.
CJLPA: Despite the death of Hafez Al Assad and his companions, why do you think it is important to share and remind young Syrians of the various crimes he committed?
RT: We must not stop raising the issue of the regime’s crimes against humanity, demanding its trial, justice, and condemnation of all those who support it and assist it in its survival, whether states or individuals.
CJLPA: The Syrian regime continuously used chemical weapons despite the various threats and sanctions from the international community. Now we see many Arab nations turning a blind eye to these atrocities by normalizing relations with the Syrian government. It seems that the current regime is not going to be leaving power any time soon. How do you feel about Syria’s return to the Arab League?
RT: This trend to whitewash Bashar and re-legitimize this criminal regime is rejected and condemned by all standards. We must resist it by all means. International relations are governed by interests and variables. Our duty is always to continue reminding that major crimes have occurred and are occurring in Syria, for which the responsibility lies with the Assad family.
CJLPA: Why do you think the 2011 revolution failed to unify?
RT: The moral impact of the Syrian revolution should not be underestimated. It may not have achieved all of its goals, but its impact remains and continues. What we see these days in parts of Syria is evidence of that. This is heartwarming. As for the opposition, it was one of the parties to the revolution. Perhaps circumstances and changes made it fail to achieve its goals in confronting tyranny.
CJLPA: The fight for freedom is not a new concept in the history of Syria. Figures like yourself have been fighting to get rid of the Assad family for around 60 years. Currently, there are millions of Syrians displaced worldwide. Do you believe that the next generation is capable of change, despite the presence of a large portion of the Syrian people outside Syria?
RT: I believe that our people, despite the massive displacement and migration, and despite the harsh living conditions of hunger, poverty, and disease, will not remain silent over injustice. It will rise from its ashes to rebuild itself again and fulfill the hopes and aspirations of Syrians towards freedom and decent living. We are required to change the old ways, to have a serious confrontation with ourselves, and to have a vision and a voice that unites Syrians. Reviewing, hearing the opinion of others, and researching the horizon of the past that we have experienced is necessary, and thus perhaps we can draw lessons so that the next youth who will have a great task will benefit from this experience. Syria will remain ours, and we need to have a voice that unites Syrians from north to south, and from east to west.
This interview was conducted by Nour Kachi, Legal Researcher of Human Rights Volume of CJLPA 3. In addition to his role at CJLPA, Nour is currently working on qualifying as a lawyer in the US and UK.