- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2011

The State Department is investigating charges that Syrian diplomats are spying on Syrian anti-government demonstrators in Washington and other U.S. cities in order to intimidate their relatives in the restive Middle Eastern nation.

Eric Boswell, assistant secretary for diplomatic security, last week summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to air “concerns with the reported actions of certain Syrian Embassy staff in the United States,” the State Department said Friday evening.

“We received reports that Syrian mission personnel under Ambassador Moustapha’s authority have been conducting video and photographic surveillance of people participating in peaceful demonstrations in the United States,” the department said.

The charges could spur the State Department to restrict the travel of the ambassador and other Syrian diplomats.

Hamdi Rifai, director of Arab Americans for Democracy in Syria, said he filed a complaint with the State Department in June about reports of the ambassador’s attempted intimidation and surveillance of Syrian-Americans.

“I was told they were actively considering placing restrictions on the movement of Ambassador Moustapha amongst other remedies to the situation,” Mr. Rifai said.

Radwan Ziadeh, the director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights who is in close touch with Syria’s liberal opposition, said he first noticed Syrian diplomats monitoring demonstrations in Washington last month.

“What I know is, we have had demonstrations in front of the White House last month and, for the first time, we were confronted by some supporters of the Assad regime. When we took pictures and looked for their names, some of them worked for the embassy,” he said.

“This happened also in Michigan, New Jersey and Los Angeles, where there is a large Syrian community. We started asking the State Department to follow up on this issue.”

Mr. Ziadeh said he was worried that the activities from the embassy personnel were part of a campaign to intimidate the families of Syrian-Americans.

“All the Syrian exiles who are activists are afraid to go back to Syria,” he said. “My mother is in Damascus. She has been told she cannot travel, and my brothers and sisters have been told they cannot travel. They called my brother to issue statements to discredit and attack me. This is because of what I am doing outside of the country.”

Mr. Rifai said he received a note to his Facebook account from the Syrian Interior Ministry asking him to end his opposition activities and obey Syrian law.

Mr. Ziadeh talked to The Washington Times from Johannesburg, where he was lobbying the South African government to vote in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on nonviolent protests.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been fighting widespread non-violent demonstrations for about 14 weeks. Human rights groups accuse his security forces of killing as many as 1,600 protesters.

In its response last week to the allegations against Mr. Moustapha, the State Department said: “The United States government takes very seriously reports of any foreign government actions attempting to intimidate individuals in the United States who are exercising their lawful right to freedom of speech as protected by the U.S. Constitution.

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