Popular Syrian Political Cartoonist Attacked and Hospitalized; Security Forces Suspected

Popular Syrian Political Cartoonist Attacked and Hospitalized; Security Forces Suspected

By Zach Waksman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria – Ali Farzat, one of the most popular political cartoonists in the Middle East, was brutally attacked by masked gunman early yesterday morning in Damascus.  The gunmen, suspected to be members of Syria’s security forces, pulled the 60-year-old from his car and beat him, focusing their blows on his arms.  Farzat, who has since been brought to a hospital and is recovering from his injuries, suffered two broken fingers on his left hand, a fractured right arm, and a bruised left eye.

Ali Farzat, Syrias best-known political cartoonist, lies in Damascuss al-Razi Hospital following Thursday mornings attack
Ali Farzat, Syria's best-known political cartoonist, lies in Damascus's al-Razi Hospital following his being attacked Thursday morning. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

This attack is among the latest in Syria, whose embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, has spent the last several months using security forces to crack down on dissenters.  Earlier this week, the United Nations called for further investigation into the crackdowns, which may constitute crimes against humanity.  But President Assad has continued to stand firm, calling the protesters terrorists whose crushing was necessary to protect the country.

The attack on Farzat indicates a new level of paranoia by the Assad regime.  Even before yesterday, fans could only access his cartoons on his private website because Syria had banned their appearance in local newspapers.  His popularity is derived from his willingness to skewer leaders across the Middle East, including former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the head of the Libyan government.  During Farzat’s 40 year career, his work has emphasized the “mismatch between rhetoric and reality in the Arab world,” as described by BBC Arab Affairs analyst Sebastian Usher.  These drawings have generally used generic government officials, but his work over the past few months has directly attacked Assad.  One of his most recent drawings depicted the Syrian leader carrying a suitcase while trying to get a lift from Gaddafi, who is driving a getaway car.  These criticisms came in spite of a ban on caricatures of Assad’s face.

Ayad Sharbaji, a friend of Farzat’s who visited him in the hospital, told the New York Times what Farzat recounted from the beating. “They told him as they were burning his beard, ‘We’ll see what you will draw from now on.  How dare you disobey your masters?’”

Usher considered the attack a sign that Farzat’s cartoons had “hit home and that the authorities’ tolerance for dissent is touching zero.”

Activists were concerned by this attack.  “What happened to Ali Farzat today scared us,” said an activist from Homs, who wished to be identified only by her first name, Sally. “But it’s only a proof of how desperate the regime is. It shows how frightened they are and proves that they are losing control.”

The United States was quick to respond with a statement from the State Department.  Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, issuing the statement, called Assad’s repeated promises of reform a series of “empty promises about dialogue with the Syrian people.”  Continuing further, Nuland reiterated the U.S.’s stance that Syria should promptly cease its attacks on dissenters against the Assad regime.

SANA, Syria’s official news agency, also reported the assault.  In a press release, the agency said that Farzat’s attackers were “veiled people.”  It concluded that “Authorities concerned are conducting an investigation” of the incident.

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera — US condemns Syria political cartoonist attack — 26 August 2011

SANA — Caricaturist Ali Farzat Attacked by Veiled People — 26 August 2011

BBC — Syria unrest: Famed cartoonist Ali Ferzat ‘beaten’ — 25 August 2011

New York Times — Political Cartoonist Whose Work Skewered Assad Is Brutally Beaten in Syria — 25 August 2011

Impunity Watch — Assad stands firm against pressure to step down, new investigation of violence in Syria — 23 August 2011

ICTJ In Focus August 2011 Issue 6

ICTJ in Focus August 2011 Issue 6


By Tamara Alfred

Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

The International Criminal Court concludes its first war crimes trial this week against Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord.

Lubanga, 50, an ethnic Hema, was charged with enlisting and conscripting children as young as nine to his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) movement to kill members of the rival Lendu tribe during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It was the first international case to focus exclusively on child soldiers and the opening trial at the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal.  Despite multiple setbacks, the conclusion of the two-year trial demonstrates the ICC’s ability to hear even the trickiest of cases.

Thomas Lubanga during his trial. (Photo Courtesy of Reuters.)
Thomas Lubanga during his trial. (Photo Courtesy of Reuters.)

“It is the first ICC trial finally coming to an end and it’s evidence that the ICC can conduct trials, despite the fact it has taken a considerably long time,” said Mariana Pena of the Federation for Human Rights in The Hague.

More than 30,000 child soldiers were recruited during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war.  Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that Lubanga’s armed group recruited “hundreds of children to kill, pillage and rape.”

Lubanga has denied all charges, saying he was a politician, not a warlord, and never played an active role in the UPC’s militia.  His defense has argued that he is being tried as political scapegoat and that other leaders of the UPC and DRC bear greater responsibility.  The defense also claims that Lubanga in fact tried to liberate child soldiers, not recruit them.

The defense has also alleged that child soldiers who testified invented stories and suggested that they had been coached or bribed to give false evidence.  Additionally, the defense has also put forth major accusations of prosecutorial misconduct.

The trial was put on hold for six months in June 2008 – 10 days before it was scheduled to start – when judges ruled that Moreno-Ocampo had not given lawyers evidence that could have helped Lubanga, prompting criticism that Lubanga was not receiving a fair trial.  The documents were later released on the condition of confidentiality to protect the sources; just one of the ways the ICC was forced during the trial to find ways of shielding witnesses while giving testimony, as well as figuring out how to share materials with the defense without endangering sources because the materials reveal their identities.

“Disclosure obligations are non-negotiable,” said Alison Cole of the Open Society Justice Initiative, “and there are positive signs that lessons with respect to evidence management are being internalized within the court.”

Judges again halted the trial in July 2010 and ordered Lubanga’s release when prosecutors defied a court order to reveal the identity of an intermediary who had helped them contact witnesses.  Prosecutors appealed and Lubanga remained in custody.  Prosecutors revealed the identity of their intermediary to the defense in the end and the trial continued.

Prosecution and defense lawyers will conclude their arguments on Thursday and Friday before the three-judge panel leaves to consider the verdict.  A judgment is expected in early 2010 as the judges’ terms end in March.

The ICC is currently conducting three other trials, all of Congolese suspects, including the country’s former vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba.

More recently, the ICC has issued indictments in the Darfur conflict in Sudan and of Libya’s fallen leader Gaddafi, as well as his son Saif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity for their role in the killing of civilian protesters at the start of the recent uprising.

“I found that fear of the ICC a healthy development in international law,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN special envoy for children in armed conflicts, told the Associated Press regarding the power of the ICC.  “Nobody can measure how many children have been saved because of deterrence.  That’s not something you can measure, but hopefully that will be the case.”

For more information, please see:

The Guardian – Judges urged to convict Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga – 25 August 2011

Voice of America – ICC’s First War Crimes Trial Comes to Close – 25 August 2011

Reuters – ICC’s landmark debut trial concludes after two years – 24 August 2011