How Syria controls its dissidents

How Syria controls its dissidents

RATHER than kicking troublesome figures out, some countries, especially in the Middle East, like to keep them in. In Syria travel bans have been routinely used to prevent people from going abroad. Their use seems to be rising.

Statistics are hard to come by since bans are issued by the country’s opaque security agencies. But human-rights campaigners say Syrian bans have expanded significantly since 2006. Seasoned campaigners, such as Mazen Darwish, who headed the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, now shut down, are conspicuous cases. But lesser-known and younger Syrians, including writers, artists and those who work for international charities and lobbies, along with their families, are finding themselves stopped more often at the borders, especially when they are trying to set off to attend international conferences, however innocuous. Often those who do attend are refused re-entry.

The regime tends to tighten the screws when it feels edgy. Originally used in the 1980s, travel restrictions were revived in 2002. The bans have two aims: to limit communication between campaigners and the outside world, and to help the regime gather information. After America’s invasion of Iraq, when neoconservatives close to George Bush hoped that Bashir Assad’s regime in Syria might fall too, repression—and spying on dissidents—increased.

Travel bans are common throughout the Middle East: the governments of Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates all impose them. And Israel curbs the movement of Palestinians inside the territories it occupies and can prevent Palestinian politicians from going abroad. But Syria is the worst offender among Arab states. An opposition report says 400 or more people are affected, compared with only a few dozen elsewhere.

Though illegal under international law, the bans are generally applied with impunity. In some Arab countries, however, they have been challenged. In March an Egyptian court quashed a travel ban on Muhammad Badei, the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide. But Syrian courts refuse to interfere in matters of “national security”. Some people prevented from travelling think it is worth ending their activities or even co-operating with the authorities to free themselves of the ban; others get tired of waiting for a visa and apply for temporary travel permits which are for specified time periods and sometimes to specified countries.

The bans are an effective way to control people. Public protests are rare. Outside interest is thin. The best people think they can do is to write anonymously online about their experiences. Many fear even to do that. In any event, campaigners say the internet is no substitute for face-to-face meetings to keep their cause alive.