Syrian security forces arrested prominent human rights lawyer and activist Anwar al-Bunni earlier today (Reuters, 5/17/06). The arrest comes as part of a large wave of arrests of several activists (Arabic. Levant News, 5/17/06), including prominent political activist and writer, Michel Kilo, who was detained three days ago. Bunni had come out in condemnation of Kilo's arrest.
The apparent reason for the arrests is a joint declaration signed by 274 Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals which calls, among other things, for a correction of Syrian-Lebanese relations and the recognition of Lebnon's sovereignty and independence, starting with demarcating the borders and exchanging embassies with Lebanon (Arabic. ME Transparent, 5/11/06). Both Bunni and Kilo were signatories to the declaration, called The Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut Declaration.
Yesterday, two other signatories, human rights lawyer and activist Nidal Darwish and secretary general of the Arab Organization for Human Rights Mahmoud Mer'i, were also arrested. And then today, Mahmoud Issa (former detainee, Communist activist), Safwan Tayfour (activist), Khalil Hussein (Kurdish Future Current), and Khaled Khalifeh, were all arrested, and all are signatories, although there seems to have been a case of mistaken identity with Khalifeh; a writer with the same name did sign the declaration (AFP, 5/17/06). There are also summons for Suleiman al-Shammar (political activist) and Kamal Sheikho (human rights activist), both of whom are signatories to the declaration.
Bunni's wife told Elaph that the arrest was made outside the house, as Bunni was opening his car door (Arabic. 5/17/06). His brother Akram, himself an activist and a signatory to the declaration who had just returned from Madrid, added that the arrest was more like a kidnapping, as the security forces did not summon Bunni. Instead, they staked him outside his house, and as he tried to open his car door, they rushed him and took him away screaming.
Bunni's arrest was preceded by having his license to practice law revoked for up to four years last week (Financial Times, 5/15/06). In March, the regime also shut down the (mainly EU-funded) human rights center that he led. He is also the spokesman for the Hurriyat center (National Center for the Defense of the Freedom of Journalists and the Press in Syria) headed by Michel Kilo.
The Elaph report noted that some Syrian officials are referring to the Beirut-Damascus Declaration as the "March 14th Declaration," in reference to the anti-regime coalition, which holds the majority in Lebanon's parliament and cabinet and which has been making similar calls as those of the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, and has appealed to the UN Security Council to pressure Syria on these points. This led to the introduction of a draft resolution, sponsored by the US, France, and Britain, calling on Syria to fully recognize Lebanon's independence by demarcating the borders and exchanging embassies with its neighbor, and to cease interference in its internal affairs. The resolution passed today by a majority of 13 votes, with Russia and China abstaining.
The comparison with the March 14th coalition is telling and suggests, as Bahia Mardini notes, that discussing Syrian-Lebanese relations, or rather, holding positions that go against the regime's line on this issue, is now a new prohibited red line in Syria (Arabic. Elaph, 5/17/06). Political analyst Michael Young agrees: "The Syrian regime was no doubt sending a domestic message that that link between the Syrian opposition and their comrades across the border must cease."
Ammar Abdulhamid commented on the wave of arrests on his blog, noting its timing (as the UN Security Council was discussing the draft resolution): "one thing is becoming clear: the Assad regime is throwing the glove in the face of the international community and all its resolutions." He added, "unless an explicit message is sent to the Assads to the effect that such confrontational policies will only serve to increase their international isolation, the crackdown against activists will continue and could easily escalate to include all notable opposition figures in the country."