As the Syrian war continues the fate of thousands of political prisoners remains a major source of concern. Now one prisoner in particular, Louay Hussein, is bringing the issue into focus.
Hussein, a well-known opposition leader, was arrested by the Syrian government in late 2014. He had been the head of Building the Syrian State (BSS), a pro-democracy opposition group inside the country. He was jailed after publishing an article in which he bitterly criticized the regime and warned that the Syrian state was faltering badly.
Today, as Hussein’s trial approaches, his colleagues are calling for his release.
Hussein was imprisoned for several years in the past by the regime because of his calls for democracy in Syria. Current accusations leveled at him state that Hussein’s actions and words were weakening national sentiment, a punishable crime. Hussein, like President Bashar al-Assad, is an Alawite, potentially making him more of a political threat to the current system.
Mouna Ghanem, a female opposition leader who works with Louay Hussein as vice president of his political party, spoke with Syria Deeply about his arrest.
Syria Deeply: Why do you think the authorities have arrested Louay Hussein? What is the message?
Ghanem: Until now, we have not been given a logical reason. His detention was based on a legal accusation that he has weakened the “national sentiments” based on an article that he wrote that was published in al-Hayat [newspaper]. In the article, he criticized the regime and the leadership. He warned that the state is no longer a state that takes care of citizens. He has been in prison for about three months now. He is being kept in detention to continue investigations and interrogations. Now, we are waiting for the date of the trial to be set.
The summary [investigative] judge heard his case right after his arrest at the courthouse. After that he was transferred to the central prison known as Adra Prison. His lawyer visits him every week. His wife and myself have spoken with him several times on the phone.
I have visited him …we always try to keep him updated about the general political developments and present in public life. The lawyer also passes messages to him.
Syria Deeply: How does that reflect on your party/group and the opposition in general? Are you planning any action? Did any of your members flee?
Ghanem: When Hussein was arrested, we saw in that an attempt to close the doors to a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Ever since the beginning of the Syrian crisis we have always said that the political solution is the only way out of the crisis.
I believe that we, as a party, are facing a huge challenge, because Hussein is a leading figure and it is hard for anyone to fill the vacuum that he has left, on any side.
Hussein has proven his leadership and presence. He has proven his credibility with both the opposition and the pro-regime groups. He has proven that his vision and analysis of the Syrian crisis and its solution were accurate: the way out for Syria is political, and it is a mistake to withdraw from the political solution or carry arms. He also has proven that it is important to work from inside Syria. He was against leaving.
I believe the opposition is now missing the leadership that [can attract] Syrians of different political backgrounds around it. Hussein being imprisoned actually decreases the chances for a political solution.
Syria Deeply: Are there any efforts to secure his release? What was the government response?
Ghanem: We have called for the release of Hussein in more than one statement. We have spoken a lot inside Syria about the importance of his release. We discussed our request for his release during the Russian mediation efforts and during all diplomatic meetings, but still we do not know if he will be released soon. We do not know if he will be imprisoned for three years, which is the minimum for the accusations leveled against him.
Syria Deeply: What is special about Louay Hussein’s case? What does he represent?
Ghanem: I think what is special about Hussein is that his ideas actually reflect the ideas of a significant number of Syrians inside Syria. He also represents those who do not approve of the regime, but they see that Syria is a nation for Syrians, regardless of whether they opposed or support the regime. They are the Syrians who demand a democratic change. We have to see things from two different perspectives.
At the beginning of the developments in Syria, we were accused of being traitors. But people soon realized that we are trying to protect our nation, and that is a goal bigger than destroying the regime. Hussein believes that the Syrians deserve a better life and that they will reach that goal.
Syria Deeply: What do you think will happen with his case? Are you optimistic that he would be released soon?
Ghanem: It is difficult for those who live in the atmosphere of war to be optimistic or pessimistic, but we will continue working.
Syria Deeply: What do you think will happen next?
Ghanem: I think through our meetings and diplomatic discussions there will be a political solution in 2015. And after that there will be a solution for establishing a coalition between the government and the opposition. This is the only solution. About 98 percent of the Syrian people want political freedom. About 54 percent of Syrians care about the destiny of Assad. That is the least of the people’s concern. People want a political solution [to end the violence].
The international community understands the dangers that will exist if the Syrian state collapses or shrinks. This is what we saw in Moscow, and the release of Hussein and other prisoners comes within this framework.
Syria Deeply: What is the most pressing problem in Syria today, and how should it be addressed?
Ghanem: The Syrians want to get out of this situation. They face two things: death and economic crisis. We have to review the situation and consider both sides of the struggle.
The regime’s priority should be showing the opposition that they are serious about dialogue. They should allow the opposition to work on the ground from inside Syria. The regime has to allow freedoms. It has to work with the international community to resolve the refugee issues. We have to take into consideration the interests of all Syrians. For example, it is not acceptable that passports are not being issued for members of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian regime has to work to restore the core of the state.
Syria Deeply: Do you see the government changing in any given way? Which direction?
Ghanem: The international community is reviewing its policies and the developments of the war in Syria. They realize it was a mistake to bet on finding a solution through military gains on the ground. It was a mistake to demand the departure of Assad. The silent majority in Syria wants a political and democratic solution. There is poverty in Syria today, and economic sanctions are partly to blame for that.
The solution to the Syrian crisis today is to stop the armed struggle. Political pragmatism tells us that we have to have a transitional period towards the real Syrian state. During this period, we have to limit the authority of the government and distribute power. We have to start with confidence-building steps and negotiate. The most important element is that these two elements have to move together at the same time.
I do not think that the regime was ever ready for democratic change, but the international pressures and the situation on the ground forces it to change.