Veteran Syrian human rights campaigner Haytham al-Maleh has become accustomed to receiving bad news from the Damascus authorities.
Since 1980, the 79 year-old lawyer’s work as a rights defender has earned him two stretches in jail, in 1980-1986 and 2009-2011, while harassment from the authorities helped force the closure of the Human Rights Association of Syria which he headed.
So on 23 June, when his lawyer made a trip to Syria’s Passports and Immigration Directorate and told him his seven year-old travel ban had been lifted, he was sceptical enough to double-check the information.
“I sent another lawyer, as I did not believe the first one,” he told Amnesty International. “I never thought that I would be able to leave Syria”.
But it was true. Haytham collected his passport on 26 June. He eventually left the country for Europe on 10 July. On the same day, the Syrian government announced, at a National Dialogue Conference which was boycotted by the majority of the opposition, that all travel bans would be lifted. Haytham still could not believe what had happened.
“Even while crossing the border control at the airport, I was in a state of disbelief that I’m actually free to travel” he said.
He stopped first in Turkey, where he met his son, Iyas, for the first time in seven years, and has since attended a Syrian opposition conference in Istanbul.
Haytham al-Maleh was released from his latest three year jail sentence on 8 March as part of an amnesty for certain categories of prisoners, including those aged 70 and over. But his vocal support for the mass protests which erupted shortly afterwards forced him go underground to avoid further detention.
While on the run, he applied for a passport. It was only by getting his lawyers to check on the progress of that application that he learned he was finally free to leave the country. The roundabout way in which Haytham found out about his travel status is indicative of the shadowy way in which such bans are imposed, and lifted, in Syria.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Syrians, including human rights activists, political activists and their families are thought to be subject to such arbitrary travel bans, which are imposed by various branches of Syria’s opaque security services and can be either temporary or permanent. They often come to light only when someone approaches the authorities about a trip they are planning.
The Syrian authorities’ announcement that such bans have now been lifted appears, on the face of it, to be a step forward. But until it becomes clear which, and how many people, have been banned from travelling, it will be difficult to assess what proportion of them have had those restrictions lifted.
Meanwhile Haytham is using his new-found freedom to continue his political activism abroad, attending opposition events and lobbying European politicians. As for the travel ban announcement, he remains unimpressed. “This is not an advancement” he said. “People should not have been banned from travelling in the first place, as this is against the law.”
Asked if he is worried that his activities abroad might put him at risk if he returns to Syria, Haytham remains defiant. “I’m not worried at all,” he said. “ I have a motto: ‘Let go of worries and start living!’”