The day I met Syria’s Mr Big

Ammar Abdulhamid describes being interrogated by Assef Shawkat, Syria’s deputy defence minister and former military intelligence chief who was killed in a suicide bomb attack on July 18: “The country is not ready for revolutions and civil disobedience,” he told me.

“That’s your opinion,” I replied.

“We won’t imprison you and let your friends in America turn you into a hero.”

“Do whatever you want.”

“This country is ours,” he said, “and we will burn it down rather than give it up.”

“Those who built it in the first place will rebuild it,” I replied.

He yelled at me, I yelled at him. He cursed me, I cursed him. He stood up, I stood up. He sat down, I sat down. He pondered, I pondered, as silence reigned.

Then I said: “What if I left Syria?”

He smiled.

“But I will not stop what I am doing and I will not change.”

His smile grew larger. Then he embraced me and sent me on my way.

The man was Assef Shawkat, brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad. His family relationship, coupled with his role as head of military intelligence, made him the second most powerful man in Syria and – until his assassination last week – probably the most widely feared.

That meeting in July 2005 was the last time I saw him; I left Syria with my family a couple of months later.

I had not wanted to leave, but I wanted to keep doing what I was doing – to keep agitating and tackling issues that very few wanted to tackle at the time, like minority rights, youth empowerment and citizen journalism – and I knew that distances would not matter much in the internet age.

My first encounter with Shawkat came in March 2005, two months after my return from a six-month fellowship at the Brookings Institution in Washington. I had been slapped with a travel ban on my return, and was interrogated – but not detained – by three different security branches until Shawkat finally decided to interrogate me personally.

His reasons for taking a special interest in my case were not entirely connected with politics. I am, after all, the son of Muna Wassef, Syria’s most celebrated actress, and Shawkat claimed to be “her biggest fan”.

In fact, he had met my mother a few days before our encounter to ask her permission to interrogate me. Such was his subtlety. She gave him her permission while reminding him that I was her only son, and should anything happen … [Continue reading…]

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