Dossier: Riyad al-Turk
Secretary-General of the Syrian Communist Party Political Bureau
Last month, less than four years after being released from prison, Turk raised his voice once again, criticizing the "hereditary" nature of the Syrian political system. Shortly afterwards, he was promptly re-arrested.
Turk, a native of Homs, was born in 1930. After studying law at Damascus University, he joined the Syrian Communist party, headed by Khalid Bakdash, in 1955 and quickly established himself as one of its major ideologues and a writer for its paper, Al-Nur. Turk and several other figures in the party were imprisoned after Syria joined Gamal Abdul Nasser's Egypt in a political union in 1958.
Although Turk was freed when the Nasserite regime was toppled in 1961, the new Syrian regime was suspicious of the Communist party and did not permit it to operate openly. In 1963, when the Ba'ath party came to power, Turk and other communist leaders were briefly imprisoned before being allowed to leave for exile. Turk and Bakdash lived in Beirut until February 1966, when the new regime of Salah Jadid allowed them to return.
Ideological differences between the two leaders increasingly polarized the party into a Maoist faction loyal to Turk and a pro-Soviet faction loyal to the aging Bakdash, who had led the party since 1934. Both Turk and Bakdash initially supported Hafez Assad's seizure of power in 1970. In 1972, however, Bakdash brought the Communist party into the newly-formed National Progressive Front, an umbrella organization comprising the ruling Ba'ath party and its political allies. The following year, Turk and his followers left the party, forming the Communist Party Political Bureau (al-Hizb al-Shuyu'i al-Maktab al-Siyasi).
Although the CPPB enjoyed little popular support during the 1970s, Turk's opposition to the regime and its parasitic state bourgeoisie made him very popular in intellectual circles. However, his activities became more and more intolerable to Assad as Islamist insurgents began to step up armed activities in the late 1970s. Not only did Turk refuse to condemn violent acts committed by Muslim Brotherhood, but he increasingly began to call for an alliance with them. He was arrested in Damascus on October 28, 1980 by agents of the Political Security Directorate (Idarat al-Amn al-Siyasi). His wife, Asma al-Faisal, a medical doctor from Homs, was also arrested (unlike Turk, she was released a few years later).
For the next seventeen years, Turk was held incommunicado without charge or trial in the Military Interrogation Branch (Far' al-Tahqiq al-'Askari) in Damascus. Throughout Turk's detention, Syrian President Hafez Assad repeatedly offered to free him on the condition that he publicly back the regime, but the communist stalwart refused. The regime's efforts to make this offer more persuasive were horrific, even by Syrian standards.
Turk was held in total isolation in an underground cell and, according to Amnesty International, "tortured throughout his detention" for the next seventeen years.1 After a particularly intense torture session in late 1987, Turk fell into a coma for 25 days in the intensive care unit of the prison. On another occasion, he suffered a broken arm and leg. Throughout his detention, he was deprived of medical treatment for diabetes and suffered from kidney failure and other severe ailments.
Members of Turk's family were not allowed to visit him until July 1993, and then only twice subsequently during the following five years. Only during the last two years of his imprisonment was Turk allowed to receive books and newspapers.
On May 30, 1998, Turk was finally released. According to reliable Syrian sources, he agreed to stay away from politics, wishing only to live the rest of his life in peace. For the next three years, Turk avoided public life.
On August 5, 2001, Turk made his first public appearance since being released from prison. Hundreds of people gathered in Homs to hear him speak at a meeting of the Jamal al-Atassi forum (a socialist network opposed to the ruling regime). The aging communist leader called on the Syrian people to work together to bring about a transition from "despotism and tyranny" to democracy. The "hereditary republic" of Bashar Assad, he said, "has been unable to carry out reforms because of profiteers who want to preserve their interests."
Turk staunchly condemned the late Hafez Assad, whose regime "relied on terror and the looting of the people's resources." This, he said, led to reciprocal confessional violence by Islamist groups, causing a national catastrophe from which thousands of families still suffer. Surprisingly, Turk also criticized Syria's "hegemony" in Lebanon and called for a "readjustment of political and military relations" between the two countries.
Turk appeared on Qatar's Al-Jazira satellite television station on August 15 and called for all political factions to unite and reconcile their differences. "What we need today is reconciliation, and have to work for a new future, forgetting mistakes of the past," he said, addressing Syrian journalist Nizar Nayyouf. "In the past, we had a problem with the dictator, and now that problem is over - the dictator is dead."
On August 31, Turk reportedly suffered an embolism that paralyzed one of his arms. The next day, he was arrested while seeking medical treatment in the coastal city of Tartous. Afterwards, a spokesman for the Jamal al-Atassi forum, Habib Issa (who himself was later arrested on September 13), said that "it is a very sad day for Syria . . . in this presumably outrageous speech, all Turk had asked for was national reconciliation and a social contract between the state and its subjects. If this is the crime, then it is a shame." He added that Turk "was supposed to receive medical treatment because his arm has been in partial paralysis. Instead of going to the hospital, we have no clue where he might be today."
Haitham Mana'e, the Paris-based spokesman for the Arab Human Rights Committee, also condemned the arrest. "This shows that there is no new regime in Syria. There is the old regime plus one." Turk's arrest was a violation of human rights and "an insult to one of the greatest Arab politicians of his generation." Unless he is released immediately, he added, the case indicates "that the era of authoritarianism and dictatorship is still present." Mana'e said that the committee would petition the United Nations and organize marches and strikes at Syrian embassies abroad.
The president of the Committes for the Defense of Human Rights in Syria, Akram Ne'eitha (himself a former detainee), issued a strong worded declaration accusing the state of "crossing all red lines in dealing with the peaceful opposition." Turk represented the "moderate" opposition camp. If this camp is eliminated, he hinted, the regime will face a more serious and dangerous political underground.
After some initial hesitation, the Syrian authorities finally acknowledged Turk's arrest on September 5. The state-run Syrian media stated that "Al-Turk and some malevolent people have recently spared no efforts in their campaign to slander and vilify all those who oppose their opinions by leveling false charge against them, in an exposed attempt to extinguish the flame of modernization and development in all spheres." It added that "in view of Al-Turk's persistence in his tendentious onslaught against the state in an attempt to block the march of freedom and democracy, he was arrested and referred to justice."2
1 Amnesty International, "Release of Riad al-Turk and other prisoners - a step forward," AI Index MDE 24/05/98, 1 June 1998.
2 Al-Thawra (Damascus), 5 September 2001.