Maher Arar remains hopeful and concerned about future

OTTAWA — Maher Arar says he’s stopped watching the videos coming out of Syria, the gruesome YouTube clips showing demonstrators bleeding, mangled and shot.

He says just can’t handle seeing blood spilled in his native country.

“It is unfortunate that the Syrian government has chosen the path of blood,” Arar told Postmedia News on Monday. “I grew up in Syria . . . The main thing, whether it’s in Syria or other Arab countries, is people want to be treated like human beings. They want their basic rights.” 

Hundreds of demonstrators demanding an end to the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad have been killed in the past month. After years of silence, Syrians have broken the “fear barrier,” Arar said.

“This regime seems to be well-entrenched and will fight until the last moment,” said Arar, a Canadian human rights activist and engineer. After being mistakenly described by RCMP as a terrorist in information exchanges with U.S. authorities in 2002, Arar was arrested at a New York airport and sent to Syria, where he was held for a year and tortured. The Canadian government paid Arar $10 million in compensation.

“My fear is it’s going to turn into an armed conflict,” said Arar. “If that happens, we’re going to see a similar experience as we’re witnessing today in Libya. And the ultimate responsibility (lies with) the Assad family. They are the ones that can make important concessions and decisions to avoid all of this bloodshed.”

Syria security forces have killed more than 350 civilians across Syria since unrest broke out in Deraa, rights groups say. A third of the victims were shot in the past three days as a popular revolt against Assad grew.

Assad lifted Syria’s 48-year state of emergency on Thursday but activists say the violence the following day, when 100 people were killed during protests across the country, showed he was not serious about addressing calls for political freedom.

Over the weekend the Foreign Affairs Department said it was “deeply concerned” about reports of violence against demonstrators, and called on the Syrian government to “engage in a genuine dialogue on democratic reforms with all groups in Syria.”

On Monday, Britain, France, Germany and Portugal asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn Syria’s violent crackdown against protesters.

The Europeans hope a condemnation by the Security Council could increase the pressure on Syria to halt its crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.

Arar said the United Nations should protect civilians in Syria and take a harder stand with the Assad government.

“The Assad regime is doing what it’s doing because the international community is paying more attention to Libya and other parts of the world,” he said.

“Basically, the regime is sending a message that, ‘We’re ready to do whatever it takes to save our throne,’ but at the expense of what? They really don’t care. The international community has to stand up and raise their voices.”

The UN should start an investigation into the deaths of demonstrators by government forces and bring those responsible to the International Criminal Court, Arar said.

Syrian troops and tanks poured into Deraa on Monday, seeking to crush resistance in the city where a month-long uprising against the autocratic rule of Assad first erupted.

Whether the demonstrators succeed in the face of such opposition will depend on their ability to stay organized and stay peaceful, Arar said. In the short-term, things in Syria will be ugly, he added, but could work out for the best over the next decade.

“If you look long-term, 10 years, maybe more, I really think it will be a positive thing for Syria,” Arar said.

“It’s only a prediction and I do hope things will turn out very good very quickly.”

With files from Reuters

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