Mazen Darwish was born in 1974 and graduated with a law degree from Damascus University in 1998. A couple of years later he already began to advocate for human rights, and freedom of speech in particular, by helping to establish the Committees for the Defence of Democratic Freedom and Human Rights (CDF) with a group of Syrian activists.
His fight for freedom of expression intensified in 2004, when he said, “There are no prisons to accommodate free speech” and claimed, “We cannot wait another 40 years.” Darwish then founded the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), the first non-profit organization advocating human rights and defending freedom of speech in Syria. His aim was to raise awareness and spread freedom of opinion and expression, belief and tolerance within Syrian society, while promoting the work of journalists and defenders of these freedoms.
Providing legal and technical support to journalists and activists, as well as researching and publishing reports and around 10 studies on human rights abuses, brought the SCM to the Syrian government’s attention. Since its inception, the SCM’s members have been subject to harassment, and Darwish himself has been arrested and beaten several times.
The authorities finally shut down the Centre’s offices in 2009. Darwish and other SCM members took their work underground and have been among the most important fighters for human rights in Syria, despite living in constant fear and facing enormous obstacles. In 2011, the SCM was granted “Consultative Status” by the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
Darwish is the Director of the SCM and Vice President of the Institute for International Assistance and Solidarity (IFIAS).
On February 16 2012, Darwish became a victim of his fearless efforts on behalf of freedom of opinion and of the press in Syria. Syrian security forces stormed the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression in Damascus. Darwish was taken into custody, along with his 13 employees as well as a visitor who just happened to be at the Centre at that time. While all his coworkes have been released by now, Darwish is still under arrest. Multiple sources are lending credence to the suspicion that Darwish is being tortured and that his condition is deteriorating dramatically.
When his father’s 29-year rule came to an end, Bashar al-Assad was elected President of Syria in 2000. During his autocratic presidency, the regime and secret police have kidnapped, arrested, detained, tortured and killed any voices critical of the government.
In March 2011, fuelled by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian people went to the streets to protest against the regime’s corruption and calling for political and economic reform. When security forces responded to the peaceful, unarmed protests with killings, arrests and torture, the situation escalated and the revolution began.
Since the start of the uprisings, more than 60.000 people have been killed, the numbers rising every day. Protestors and activists are arbitrarily shot, or detained, tortured and eventually killed. No one is safe, with security forces even targeting women, children and the elderly.
The violent death of one young boy was particularly shocking: 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib was on his way to a protest in Deraa on April 29, 2011, when he was arrested by security forces in the nearby town of Saida. His body was returned to his family one month later, with terrible bruises, burns, a broken neck and severed genitals. He had obviously been tortured with electric shocks, whipped with cables, and finally shot to death.
The lack of independent national media and the government’s ban on international media and activists make it extremely difficult to document and report on human rights violations and developments in the country. Those who still try to get information out of Syria, such as Mazen Darwish, pay a very high price and risk their lives for talking to the media.
Despite all the violence and atrocities committed by the security forces, the Syrian people still continue to take to the streets, calling for an end to the regime and for a free and democratic country.
Mazen Darwish was one of the first champions of human rights in Syria, starting his work more than ten years ago. His tremendous efforts have made an important contribution in establishing and shaping the Syrian human rights movement.
As a key figure in advocating human rights in his country, Darwish organized peaceful sit-ins in front of Parliament and Ministry buildings and co-launched the first electronic magazine on human rights in Syria, “The Voice”. He also published the first report on press freedom in Syria and developed a methodology to monitor media websites. He has been talking to local and international media to raise awareness of the government’s human rights violations long before the uprisings began in March.
At the beginning of the revolution Darwish participated in a sit-in for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in front of the Ministry of Interior, where he was arrested and then beaten up by security forces. Despite the great risks all opponents to the regime are currently facing he continues to be one of the very few sources of information for international media about the human rights abuses in Syria.
The prominent lawyer and human rights activist lives under permanent fear of being arrested and beaten again or even killed. His largest personal sacrifice is not being able to see his family, including his two children, who currently live in France. For “political” and “state security” reasons Darwish has not been allowed to leave Syria since 2007.
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