He was arrested from his home at 2 a.m.; insulted and mocked by the interrogators for being Palestinian; severely tortured during interrogation; chained to a hospital bed by his hands and feet and denied medical care despite his illness – a pattern drearily familiar to Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails.
There is a small twist in the tale, though. The Palestinian protagonist of this story — Marxist intellectual and dissident Salameh Kaileh — was arrested, tortured and eventually deported by the Syrian regime which has long portrayed itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause and the bulwark of resistance to Zionism and imperialism.
In the early hours of April 24, undercover Syrian intelligence officers stormed Kaileh’s house in Barzeh, a neighborhood in Damascus, and arrested him. His lawyer Anwar Bunni, human rights attorney at the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, said Kaileh was arrested from his home “without explanation” and that his arrest is yet another attempt at “muzzling” freedom of expression in Syria.
After spending almost three weeks in incommunicado detention, Kaileh was released and forcibly transferred to Jordan on the eve of Nakba Day. In an interview he gave in Jordan after his deportation, Salameh Kaileh spoke out about the appalling conditions he was subjected to during his time in the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Al Umawiyin district and the military hospital.
Signs and bruises of the severe beating he faced during interrogation were apparent, but Kaileh maintained that what he experienced was “a tiny fraction” of what other detainees, with whom he shared a cell, went through.
During interrogation in the Air Force Intelligence, he was questioned about a pamphlet entitled “The Leftist” that was found at his home, but he denied that he had anything to do with printing the pamphlets.
Kaileh said that he received the worst beatings for a slogan in the pamphlets which reads: “In order to liberate Palestine, the Syrian regime must fall.” The interrogators were particularly angry at this line, Kaileh said, and severely beat him with a wire cable and whipped the soles of his feet with a thin bamboo stick.
Kaileh told Amnesty International the worst part of his detention was the time he spent in the military hospital, where several patients were crammed in one bed, with their hands and feet shackled and their faces covered with blankets.
“We were forced to defecate and urinate in our beds, and we were beaten if we dared speak to one another. But I received less beating compared to other patients. It was not a hospital, it was a slaughterhouse,” Kaileh said.
Born in the Palestinian town of Bir Zeit near Ramallah, Kaileh graduated from the University of Baghdad in Iraq in 1979 with a Bachelor’s degree in political science. He later moved to Damascus where the bulk of his work involved critical writing and fighting for freedom and social justice. He wrote on a plethora of subjects ranging from Arab nationalism to imperialism and globalization.
A habitual critic, Kaileh’s writings are characterized by scathing and uncompromising critique of the Arab Left. According to Kaileh, not only has the Arab Left failed wretchedly in resisting oppressive, tyrannical regimes but also tainted the socialist and Marxist legacy and belied the values it claims to represent by turning into a reactionary movement and riding the bandwagon of repressive Arab nationalism and Baathism. Kaileh’s criticism of the bourgeoisie Left and its shortcomings aims at creating and crystallizing a new revolutionary Arab Left.
As professors Omar Dahi and Vijay Prashad put it in their profile of Salameh Kaileh on Jadaliyya, “Salameh sharpened his intimate critique of Arab Nationalism and of Marxism by his simultaneous and unrelenting criticism of Western Imperialism, the conservative Arab regimes, and centrally, Zionism.”
Kaileh’s opposition to the policies of the late despot Hafez al-Assad and his struggle for democracy and freedom under the despotic Baathist regime resulted in his imprisonment on March 11, 1992. He spent four years in prison including several months in solitary confinement and under severe torture before finally facing trial and an 8-year-sentence in 1996.
Kaileh was released in March 2000 after spending the last two years of his term in the infamous Tadmor prison which Kaileh describes as a “concentration camp”.
Months after his release, Kaileh was diagnosed with cancer, but neither his acute health condition nor the painfully long years of incarceration and torture could smother his resolve on fighting for political freedom in Syria, Palestine and the Arab world at large.
Never was Kaileh’s inexorable ardor for freedom and justice as evident as during the ongoing uprising to topple Bashar Assad’s regime. At a time when the mainstream Arab “left” continues to turn its back to the remarkably brave struggle of the Syrian revolutionaries by siding with the regime or to sitting meekly on the fence, Kaileh has supported the Syrian uprising since its outbreak on March 15, 2011.
It came as no surprise, then, that the Syrian security forces tried to silence Salameh Kaileh even though such an attempt would — yet again — make a mockery of the regime’s worn-out, ludicrous propaganda that the Syrian uprising is an imperialist-Zionist conspiracy led by Salafist “armed groups” that targets the regime for its role in safeguarding resistance.
There are thousands of political prisoners languishing in Syrian jails and torture camps. They are less privileged and fortunate than Salemeh Kaileh; their names and faces are not known to us; they don’t have books to their names; and their cases don’t attract the attention of media outlets and human rights organizations.
What Salameh Kaileh’s case highlights is that the Syrian regime does not distinguish between a Palestinian and a Syrian or between an intellectual and a peasant. Anyone who opposes the regime can be a victim of its systematic torture, arbitrary imprisonment and even pay with their lives.
Kaileh, however, is certain that the regime will fall: “If you see the resilience of the young detainees, even after suffering horrific torture, you know that this regime is unsustainable.”