Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The World Today: Syrian reformer turned prosecutor fears retaliation

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Tuesday, July 12, 2011

ELEANOR HALL: To Syria now where international tensions have soared over an assault by regime loyalists on the US and French embassies in Damascus, which the regime's security forces failed to prevent.

The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton responded by declaring that president Bashar al-Assad was not indispensable and that the US had nothing invested in him remaining in power.

But the Syrian president said he was still working for a political solution to the crisis, convening a reform dialogue in the capital.

A short time ago I spoke to a Syrian-American who was working with the Syrian government on democratic reform until the protests began.

Yaser Tabbara is the executive director of the Syrian American Council. He says he was horrified by president Assad's response to the protests and since March has been helping to build a crimes against humanity case against the regime for the International Criminal Court.

He spoke to me this morning from Chicago.

Yaser Tabbara, the US secretary of state said today that the Syrian government failed to protect US diplomats from pro-government demonstrators and that the US now has nothing invested in Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, that he is not indispensable.

Is the Syrian leader likely to be alarmed by this?

YASER TABBARA: Oh absolutely. I think that what the Syrian revolution has done is put pressure on the international community to declare Assad to be an illegitimate leader of Syria and it is the action of Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts and his regime that has escalated the rhetoric of the international community more and more.

I think that the lack of action on behalf of the security forces in Syria to protect American diplomats and Western diplomats is a clear indication that it's not orchestrated, it's clearly something that is condoned by Bashar al-Assad and his security thugs to send a message to the world that he does not care about being an outlaw.

ELEANOR HALL: And yet at the same time the Assad government is right now convening a dialogue on political reform in Damascus. Is there any chance of a political settlement at this stage?

YASER TABBARA: Unlikely, very highly unlikely. You have to realise that this so-called dialogue that has been commissioned by the Syrian government and the regime is basically a sham. This dialogue that they called for was boycotted by all major opposition figures in Syria and outside of Syria. It's basically a dialogue with the regime. It's a monologue.

ELEANOR HALL: Yaser Tabbara, you're clearly now a critic of the regime but you worked with Bashar al-Assad on democratic reform right up until these protests began. Why did you work for him and were you surprised at the way he responded to the protests?

YASER TABBARA: Just a point of clarification, I did not work for Bashar al-Assad, what I, I have always been a true believer in gradual democratic reform and I was among those who really had been calling on Bashar al-Assad to move forward and lead this country, lead your people into a peaceful, democratic transition.

A lot of free-thinking Syrians have been engaged with the Syrian government in the past to help on programs of development, long term development. My focus was on reforming the higher education system in Syria but again I made up my mind on March 15th and after I saw that they have demonstrated the most and utmost inhumanity in their bloody crackdown.

And that was the turning point for me and many, many free thinking Syrians that do not necessarily belong to an opposition movement pre-March 15th, which is the date that the Syrian revolution took place.

There was a measure of surprise, I'm not going to deny that. I think that yes he had a reputation of being a reasonable man, he had a reputation of being someone who is concerned of reform and he had a reputation of being somewhat civil, but he decided to shoot to kill protesters.

So far since March 15th, 1,500 people have been killed in cold blood, 20,000 people have been arrested. We have 1,000 forced disappearances. We have reports of mass graves. I mean this is, you know, has risen to a level of crimes against humanity. That is the sort of, you know, bloody dictator that Bashar al-Assad turned out to be.

ELEANOR HALL: Well you're now helping to build the case against the Assad regime at the International Criminal Court. Do you think Bashar al-Assad will take any notice of it?

YASER TABBARA: Look as late as last Friday there have been reports of about 3 million people on the streets of Syria. The situation has gotten to the point of no return, especially as the regime has its tanks and its guns pointed to the heads and chests of the Syrian people.

Those crimes we are saying amount through the international criminal law to crimes against humanity and as such we're asking the Security Council to refer the case of Bashar al-Assad and his regime to the International Criminal Court and we believe that that will put even more pressure on Bashar al-Assad and his regime to again minimise the casualties and shorten the period of that crackdown.

ELEANOR HALL: You think that he will actually listen?

YASER TABBARA: Well it's definitely a method of deterrence. I think that, you know, if it gets to the point where he will be looked at as an international outlaw and as someone who is wanted by international justice, I think he will come to his senses hopefully and realise that this is not going to only affect his grasp on power but is going to affect him personally and it's going to affect his future and the future of those around him.

In fact we feel that international criminal law and, you know, the tools that it employs are there to deter dictators such as Bashar al-Assad from committing these sort of crimes.

ELEANOR HALL: Now Yaser Tabbara, you worked with the regime until just before the protests began on reform from within. Now you're working against it. Do you feel personally in danger because of your involvement in this International Criminal Court case?

YASER TABBARA: Absolutely, without a question I feel in danger. In fact I have received a number of notifications that my name is on some sort of a black list and I've also received reports that my name has been reviewed and reported on in Syrian TV as one of these political traitors of Syria and the Syrian people.

I mean this is a reality that we are living through and I think we will continue to live through it until we see a free democratic Syria.

ELEANOR HALL: What do you fear that the regime could do to you?

YASER TABBARA: I do not put it beyond this regime to do anything. I mean we've just witnessed so much instability and brutality by, on behalf of this regime since March 15th and so again, this is the sort of regime we're dealing with.

ELEANOR HALL: Yaser Tabbara, thanks very much for talking to us.

YASER TABBARA: Thank you for having me.

ELEANOR HALL: Yaser Tabbara is the executive director of the Syrian American Council and you can listen to a longer version of that interview on our website.

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