In the fourth episode of BBC Radio 4’s series in which authors tell of their personal perspectives on reshaping the Arab World, Syrian writer and broadcaster, Rana Kabbani, reads her letter to political prisoner, Riyad al-Turk. Kabbani talks to al-Turk about the recent uprisings against the political oppression in Syria and across the Arab world. She speaks of the new hope that she sees for democratic change and how it reminds her of al-Turk’s struggle, spending nearly 20 years in prison for his political beliefs. Kabbani describes al-Turk’s history, telling of how he was taken from his home without being allowed to take so much as change of clothes or say goodbye to his two daughters, to be imprisoned in a cell the size of a coffin.
Kabbani tells al-Turk of the inspiring stories of modern Arab revolt against totalitarian dictatorship. In particular, she recalls the image of Egyptian security vans shooting water canons and bullets at protesters who acted by turning and facing down the forces as they fell to their knees in what she describes as ‘a communal and courageous act of prayer’. These events have inspired hope in Kabbani and she hopes one day to be able to meet al-Turk again in their own hometowns, free from oppression.
The full letter is available to listen to at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00zn0wj/Letters_to_the_Arab_World_Episode_4/
Biography of Riyad al-Turk
Riyad al-Turk is a prominent opposer of the Syrian regime and has been called ‘The Old Man of Syrain Opposition’. He was secretary general of the Syrian Communist Party since its creation in 1975 and up until 2005. Al-Turk has spent almost 20 years in prison as punishment for his political beliefs.
Al-Turk was first imprisoned in 1952 after opposing the military regime that took power through a coup. He spent five months in prison where he was tortured but never tried. In 1958, al-Turk was incarcerated again by Egyptian leader, Nasser, for protesting against the merger of Syria and Egypt. He was held for sixteen months, once again being tortured but never put on trial.
Al-Turk was responsible for forming the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) after a split from the main Syrian Communist Party. The party strongly opposed the Syrian regime and focused on pluralist democracy. The regime tried to repress the party and in 1980 al-Turk was once again arrested and imprisoned. This imprisonment lasted for almost eighteen years, with al-Turk being placed in solitary confinement in a cell about the length of his body. He was not allowed to exercise and for the majority the time not given anything with which to occupy his mind. Furthermore, for the first thirteen years al-Turk was not permitted any communication with or information about his family or friends, including his two daughters. He suffered ill health which he was not treated for and upon his release in 1998 had to be taken to Europe for care.
Following his release, al-Turk remained relatively politically inactive, until 2000 when debates arose after Syrian dictator, Hafiz al-Asad, died and his son succeeded him. Al-Turk took a prominent role in the Damascus Spring, which demanded democratic change. He was once again arrested in 2001 and put on a trial seen by many as unfair. In 2002, he was sentence to three years in prison for ‘attempting to change the constitution by illegal means’, leading to international protests. Al-Turk was released after fifteen months and returned to his political activities.
In 2005, al-Turk stepped down from his role as secretary in the Syrian Communist Party (Political Bureau) but still remains an influential figure. He also became a prominent member in the Damascus Declaration, a statement of unity from Syrian opposition activists and organisations.