Friday, June 25, 2004

A click can send you to jail.

Abdul Rahman Al-Shaghfoory, a 32 year old Syrian citizen was arrested a year ago and yesterday he was sentenced to two and a half years in jail because he was found guilty of downloading “forbidden” pages (run by Syrian exiles) and forwarding e-mails containing parts of those pages.

The authorities described his activity as “spreading false news that weaken the morale of the Syrian people”. Four other men are facing similar charges.

I know it’s still early for a new round of comments from the BBC ARABIC forum but this is a very important topic that one can not ignore and I found that the responses worth reading, as a matter of fact I read the whole section twice.

You know that freedom of speech (especially through the internet) is something that we in Iraq began to enjoy only after the 9th of April, so I found myself concerned a lot about this issue. Some of the comments made me remember the days under Saddam’s regime when I used to find myself viewing a political page and there would be a poll that I want to give my voice in or entering a forum where I want to post an idea but I often failed to *click* on the vote button or to post my idea even anonymously. It may sound ridiculous but I was afraid of being tracked down and identified.

The situation in Syria now is much like what we experienced before the 9th of April and that’s why I feel that the comments coming from inside Syria that agree with the government’s policy are either posted by agents of the Syrian intelligence or by ordinary people who are so scared and misled.

I used to feel sorry for Arabs in other countries because I believe that we have much more freedom than they can dream of and my friends sometimes laughed at me especially when I mention Saudi Arabia or other gulf countries because my friends took only the economic aspect in their consideration.

Now, after reading hundreds of Arabs’ comments, I can see jealousy in their words and they frankly envy us for what we have.
I’m sitting now in my living room expressing my feelings, posting my thoughts about any subject and criticizing anyone without fear while our neighbors still encounter serious risks when they want to *read* what someone else wrote in the internet.

Some people still doubt the effect of establishing democracy in Iraq on the region and I would like to point out that if this is what liberating Iraq has accomplished in opening some Arab's eyes (some of them wish the change to happen now!)even with all the difficulties Iraq is facing then what would it be like, say in five years, when Iraq becomes a prosperous and stable democracy!?

There were about 60 comments at the time when I viewed the forum, all of which came from Syrians, Iraqis, Saudis, and Egyptians from inside and outside their countries except for a small percentage that came from Sudan, Lebanon, U.A.E. and other Arab and Muslim countries.

I made some simple calculations and found that :
69 % of the posts were against punishing people for accessing certain websites.
20 % were with the punishment decision.
7 % denied that this incident really happened.
3 % were unsure of their opinion.

Most of the positive comments ( against punishment) were from Iraq, Sandia Arabia and Egypt. The worst came from Syrians *inside* Syria.

The BBC Arabic radio opened a live discussion this afternoon for more than an hour and received many phone calls from different Arab countries.

Here are some of the comments that I have translated:

“It’s really saddening that we’re living under governments that think with such mentalities but I’d like to direct their attention to the fact that the world has become much smaller than they can imagine and what you want to prevent us from seeing (due to your narrow horizon) is known, declared and easy to find on satellite channels, foreign papers, etc.
Aymen Lewez-Cairo/Egypt.

“Such irresponsible doings were always a habit for the dictatorial Ba├íthist regime.
I’m a Syrian man but I live outside Syria and I don’t dare to sign with my real name to protect my family, let alone those poor people who live inside!!
I can’t but pray for that poor prisoner who’s going to see things like those we saw happen in Abu Ghraib. God help him”.

“The regime in Syria is another Taliban reign. The only difference is that Syrians wear suits.
Why is it that when the west talks about bringing real democracy to the Arab nations, the people respond by cheering the names of the leaders and they curse the democracy of “evil and infidels”?!
Sameer Khaleel-Cairo.

“Governments have no right to prohibit visiting any specific website”
Mohammed Hamid-KSA.

“When you live in an Arabic country and you hear such news coming from regimes that are least described as retarded and handicapped, you sometimes wish that Allah would send a catastrophe on those regimes and they sometimes give the right for the Americans or other powers to topple them”.
Imad Abdul Noor-Beirut/Lebanon.

“I say that the Syrian regime is exactly the same as Saddam’s regime in Iraq; everything is forbidden. I’m a journalist and I ask the Syrian government : Why do you stand against freedom of speech and why are you afraid of the people and the intellectuals. I add my voice to the Amnesty International’s plead to release Abdul Rahman. And thanks”
Husam Munaf-Baghdad/Iraq.

“Let’s shut down our PC’s for a moment of grieve to mourn our freedom of speech inside our Arab societies”

“I am Abdul Rahman’s cousin. I grew up with him and I know him like a brother. I was among those who received political articles by e-mails from him; there were nine of us; me and my four brothers, his brother and three other relatives. Abdul Rahman is not a member in any political or religious organization. He’s just a smart young man who loves reading in his house and discussing the world events with his friends and relatives. He knows the details about what’s happening in Malaysia, Mexico and China. So how could he not care about what’s going on in the Arab world or his country. I feel sad because some of you don’t believe the news and some of you are with punishing internet users. My cousin didn’t take his friends' warnings seriously but he paid a high price for his curiosity and for his feeling that we’ve passed an old era. I wish that Bashar Al-Asad would meet him in person to know whom he’s thrown in prison. If we’re still living under the regime of the one and only leader, then at least this leader should visit his prisons and know the kind of youths staying there. We were taught to be honest even to those we oppose in opinion, so the politicians can trust us more than they trust their guards because we refuse to make violence or treason our way in changing the society. These are Abdul Rahman’s ideas too and he’s still hanging on to his non-violence. The Arab world is not going to change unless we rejected violence and got prepared to pay for what we want to change”
Afraa’ Chalabi-Montreal/Canada.

“The time has come for an end to such environment that produces such a sentence.
The Syrian who reported Abdul Rahman, the Syrian who broke into his house and had him hand-cuffed, and the Syrian who took him from his wife and children to throw him in the darkness of prison; all those did it for an apparent motivation that is obeying the regime out of a paralyzing fear while actually they’re hiding a desperate scream that asks for help from the world. They’re all crying out: People, come over here, Iraq was not a worse place than here. Please save us from this prison of humiliation and poverty”
Khalid Khlaiwi Al-Riyadh/KSA.

“We use the internet to get knowledge and science, not to contact the enemies of our homeland or those who threat the presence of our Arab nation.”
Jab Allah Mansour-Libya.

“I’m not surprised to hear such lies being told about the regime in Syria. Who attempts to spread such false news is trying to spread chaos to weaken the Syrian position”
Baraa’Asseda-A Syrian.

“I’m a Syrian and I live in Syria but I’m unaware of such an incident, neither did any of my relatives hear of it.
Still I agree with closing and forbidding some websites that might harm the Arab governments and those who access such sites must be punished because they’re messing with the general security of the country. We need websites that unite us together, not split our minds.”

"I’m not surprised by theses oppressive “laws” made by the Ba’athists, as if it wasn’t for such oppression the Ba’athists wouldn't have survived this long."
Ahmed Ghazi Hamad-Baghdad/Iraq.

"I think the Syrian government have every right to do this because this citizen, and by opening such pages has started to think and use his own brain and this is totally unaccepted by the Ba’athists, the only thinkers of humanity!"
Wakaas Asad Ali-Kirkuk/Iraq.

"I want to say to some of the Syrian posters: No wonder you haven’t heard of this and anyone who thinks that a human being should be put in jail just for visiting some sites that oppose his government, is in a bigger jail than that of Abdul-Rahman, and may God help us."
Saad Mohammed-Damascus/Syria.

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