Tea in Damascus with a gentle human rights giant – Aktham Naisse (1951-2022)

February 14, 2022

It is with deep sadness that the Martin Ennals Foundation announces the passing of our 2005 Laureate, Aktham Naisse. A committed human rights lawyer, he fought for the rule of law and democracy all his life. In honour of this human rights giant who passed away all too soon, filmmaker Willem Offenberg shares his memories of an interview he conducted with Aktham Naisse.   

Martin Ennals Laureate 2005 Aktham Naisse

By Willem OffenbergThe setting is a small café in downtown Damascus, mid 2005. Aktham Naisse, a Syrian human rights lawyer, is seated comfortably in his favourite chair, within reach of a cup of strongly sugared tea and a hookah. He patiently answers questions from Lina Sinjab, a local TV producer. The film crew from Geneva was not allowed access to authoritarian Syria. We ask him questions, dictated from afar, for a film portrait of Naisse who has been named Laureate of the Martin Ennals Award 2005. He was freshly out of jail, awaiting the outcome of his trial. However, Naisse was simply not perturbed. Not in the slightest. 

An unwavering commitment to human rights

After Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000, the human rights organisation founded by Naisse – Committee for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights (CDF) – issued a declaration on the internet calling for an end of the state of emergency. Hundreds of demonstrators showed up in front of the Syrian Parliament. Many in the Arab world saw the birth of the CDF in 1989, as the start of the modern human rights movement in Syria. It was the first time that the question of human rights and fundamental liberties were put forward on the political scene in Syria. 

Active in democratic movements in Egypt from 1974-1976, Naisse was arrested for the first time in February 1982 together with a group of lawyers demanding respect for human rights. Rearrested multiple times, he would be held incommunicado and tortured brutally in jail. Yet with each release, he returned to his human rights advocacy. Alongside the CDF, he contributed to the publication “Sawt al-Dimokratiyyah” (the voice of democracy).  He spoke out in national, regional and international conferences promoting the respect for human rights.  

“I was involved in politics since 1966 when I was 14 years old,” he told us. “I was put in jail in 1980, 1981, 1985 and 1987 for different reasons. Political activism in Syria stems from the regime’s dictatorial nature… What the Syrian people have endured is a bitter experience. Not only under French colonialism but also under the tyrannical regime that seized power in this country. The nature of this injustice was inhuman, and it was directed not only to a specific political wing but to all political movements and activities. I believe that those events triggered me to work in the field of human rights, to abolish all traces and impact of injustice.” 

A gentle human rights giant

His demeanor the day of our long-distance interview seemed that of a gentle giant, relaxed, even while talking about harsh treatment in jail. Earlier that year in April 2004, he was arrested and returned to Sednaya prison where he suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. He began a hunger strike and was released on bail.  

The charges he overcame on that occasion speak volumes about the nature of the Syrian regime, then and still today: “Opposing the objectives of the revolution”, “disseminating false information aiming at weakening the State” and “affiliation with international organisations”. Thereby risking a sentence of fifteen years of forced labour.  

Shortly after the interview in Damascus, and following appeals by numerous human rights organizations, Aktham Naisse was acquitted of all charges. He left Syria directly for Paris, to exile, from where he continued to write and speak out for human rights in Syria. The tragic events in his country since may have hastened his early demise on February 5th. 

Willem Offenberg 

Local producer CBS News 

(Formerly with Amnesty International)