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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Ragheed Al-Tatari: Syria’s longest-serving political prisoner

The time-worn proverb “out of sight, out of mind” first penned in English by John Haywood in 1546 implies that people will quickly forget someone if he or she disappears from their lives. But even in the fast-paced busyness of life in the 21st century, nothing could be farther from the truth for Waill Al-Tatari whose father, Ragheed, now 67 years old, was arbitrarily detained by the Assad regime shortly before his birth more than 41 years ago.

For the first 14 years of his life, neither Waill nor his mother, who originally kept his father’s whereabouts from her young son, were even told where the father was being held prisoner or why he had been arrested in the first place.

Waill was 10 years old when a cousin finally told him that his father was not actually traveling as his mother had always said, but had in reality been arrested by security agents of the regime of Hafez Assad in 1981. Waill recalls how his fury at the time inspired him and his cousin to throw rocks at a statue of Hafez Assad, Syria’s brutal dictator, an undertaking that in hindsight he realizes he was lucky to have accomplished without being noticed by anyone except his uncle.

Four years later, at the age of 14, Waill met his father for the first time when he and his mother were allowed to visit Ragheed in prison. But the reasons for his arrest and continuing incarceration are not clear even now.

Ragheed Al-Tatari in Damascus, Syria in the late 1970s; Credit: The Syria Campaign

We do know that Ragheed Al-Tatari, who had been serving as a pilot in the Syrian Air Force, had known that he was under investigation in 1981 and had gone first to Jordan and then to Egypt requesting asylum because he feared for his safety in Syria. Unfortunately, the asylum was never granted and it was while trying to return to his pregnant wife in Syria that he was detained upon re-entering the country. He was 26 years old at the time.

the Assad regime just keeps fabricating reasons to continue his incarceration

Riyad Avlar

Over the years some have speculated that he was arrested for refusing to follow orders to bomb the Syrian city of Hama in 1980 which was a stronghold for the Muslim Brotherhood whose members were Assad’s strongest political rivals at the time. Others believe he may have been arrested for failing to report the defection of some Air Force pilot friends who had flown their planes to neighboring Jordan and requested asylum. Eventually, Al-Tatari was told that he had been tried and convicted in absentia by a military tribunal for the crime of disclosing information to a foreign state.  

the military tribunal that led to Al-Tatari’s imprisonment and was conducted without his knowledge or presence, did not constitute a fair trial

Riyad Avlar

Regardless of the initial reason for his arrest, one thing has always been clear, Ragheed was never given a fair trial. According to Riyad Avlar, a fellow detainee who is now free but spent 10 of his own arbitrary prison term (more than 20 years) alongside Al-Tatari, the Assad regime just keeps fabricating reasons to continue his incarceration.

Avlar hugs his mother after spending 21 years in prison in Syria; Credit: Riyad Avlar

November 24, 2022, marked the 41st anniversary of his arrest making him the longest-serving political prisoner currently being held in Assad’s prisons according to research conducted by The Syria Campaign, a human rights advocacy group that is trying to raise awareness about political detainees.

Avlar is co-founder of the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) which asserts that the military tribunal that led to Al-Tatari’s imprisonment and was conducted without his knowledge or presence, did not constitute a fair trial. “It is just a ghost,” the Turkish-born Avlar said of the military courts during an interview with Postmedia last year. 

Ragheed al-Tatari’s case is important because it serves as a reminder of the ongoing brutality and injustice of the Syrian regime today

A spokeswoman for The Syria Campaign

The International Centre for Transitional Justice on the “forcibly disappeared” in Syria also published a report in 2020 stating that military field courts aren’t subject to the same standards as the country’s typical criminal courts. In Syria, these trials are held behind closed doors in military police headquarters and they do not guarantee basic rights to the accused such as the right to a defense lawyer or a public trial.

In 2021 a spokeswoman for The Syria Campaign stated that “Ragheed al-Tatari’s case is important because it serves as a reminder of the ongoing brutality and injustice of the Syrian regime today — particularly as some Arab countries are seeking to normalize ties with the Syrian authorities, and Interpol has recently allowed Syria to re-join its communications network. His case also epitomizes the inhumanity that detainees in Syria often face. He has spent 40 years unjustly detained and denied his right to a fair trial.”

Ragheed is a decent person who is patient and has a big heart. He was kind to all the detainees and was like a big brother to us

Diab Serriya

Diab Serriya, another cofounder of ADMSP, told SYRIAWISE what he had learned about Al-Tatari’s character during the five years he spent alongside him in prison from 2006 -2011.

According to Serriya, “Ragheed is a decent person who is patient and has a big heart. He was kind to all the detainees and was like a big brother to us. The fun side of his nature, his joking, and his sense of humor are present in all his relations with his fellow prisoners.”

Being a noble person with principles, his unwillingness to initiate a complaint against anyone who abused him in prison was due in part to the fact that he was fully convinced that the Assad officers in prison are unjust and he never wanted to be the reason for someone else being harmed by them

Diab Serriya

“Whenever he was present in our cell, his positive energy reflected on all of us prisoners. He is also a sculptor and a very distinguished chess player. He was passionate and emotional with all of us and we were all very close to him.”

Serriya also described Al-Tatari as a solid and strong person who refused to complain about anything or any of his fellow prisoners, even those who harassed him and gave him a hard time. Being a noble person with principles, his unwillingness to initiate a complaint against anyone who abused him in prison was due in part to the fact that he was fully convinced that the Assad officers in prison are unjust and he never wanted to be the reason for someone else being harmed by them.

“I knew Ragheed as a real man in every sense of the word. He is my big brother and I learned a lot from him,” concluded Serriya.

Meanwhile, Al-Tatari’s son, Waill, a graphic designer currently living and working in northeast Calgary, has been living in Canada since July 2020 and has no intention of ever returning to Syria. He was only able to visit his father a few times in prison before he and his mother fled his homeland as refugees in 2013. It wasn’t until he had settled in Canada that the son of Syria’s longest-serving political prisoner realized just how much emotional trauma he has experienced in his own life.

Waill Al-Tatari; Credit: Marie Conboy/Postmedia

Waill is now committed to raising awareness of his father’s unjust plight and working towards obtaining his release from prison so that he can also enjoy the peace and freedom that he has found himself in a country that has been welcoming Syrian refugees with open arms since the Syrian revolution evolved into a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

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