In 1989, Aktham Naisse, a 38-year-old Syrian human rights activist, founded the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights and started publishing the Sawt ad-Dimuqratiya (Voice of Democracy) newsletter. Two years later, his

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In 1989, Aktham Naisse, a 38-year-old Syrian human rights activist, founded the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights and started publishing the Sawt ad-Dimuqratiya (Voice of Democracy) newsletter. Two years later, his activities landed him in prison. While released in 1996, Naisse's continued agitation for democracy and human rights suspended by a series of Emergency Laws, led to five subsequent stints in prison.

In March 2004, over 100 Syrian intellectuals joined with Naisse to deliver to the Syrian parliament a petition signed by 7,000 individuals protesting Syria's Emergency Laws.[1] The following month, Naisse issued a report detailing the Syrian government's suppression of the Syrian Kurdish minority in the wake of March 2004 riots near the city of Qamishli.[2] Syrian security services promptly arrested Naisse again, charging him with "engaging in activities against the socialist regime and opposing its revolutionary aims."[3]

For ten days after his arrest, his Syrian jailers denied Naisse medication for his heart and kidney conditions. As a result, he suffered a stroke crippling his right hand and leg and hindering his speech.[4] Although Naisse was released on bail in August 2004, the Syrian government continues to threaten him with imprisonment. Anwar Bunni, Naisse's lawyer, told reporters in January 2005, that "despite international calls and protests for the trial to be cancelled because of a lack of fair legal procedures, the authorities are insisting it goes ahead as a sword of Damocles over all political and rights activists."[5]

European and American human rights activists have recognized Naisse's courage in standing up to the Syrian dictatorship. In January 2005, a jury of representatives from eleven major international human rights groups bestowed the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders upon Naisse.[6] The spotlight forced Damascus to again postpone the trial of their leading dissident.

If international pressure on the Syrian government wanes, it is likely that Naisse will spend September 2005, not in Geneva collecting the Martin Ennals Award, but rather in an isolation cell within Syria's infamous Sednaya prison.

Suzanne Gershowitz is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

[1] Farid Ghadry, "Syrian Reform: What Lies Beneath," Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2005, p. 67.
[2] The Washington Post, Apr. 11, 2004.
[3] Agence France-Presse, Jan. 16, 2005.
[4] "Human Rights Defender at Risk, Letter to the EU Foreign Ministers," Follow-Up Committee for Aktham Naisse's Case, Oct. 6, 2004.
[5] Agence France-Press, Jan. 16, 2005.
[6] "Syrian Human Rights Defender, Aktham Naisse, Winner of 12th Martin Ennals Award," Human Rights First, Jan. 11, 2005; news release, Amnesty International, Jan. 12, 2005.