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Syrians abroad accuse envoys of intimidation

Assad foes say kin back home targeted

LONDON — Syrians protesting against the Assad regime in London and elsewhere abroad say that Syrian Embassy officials have harassed them and that their families in Syria have been intimidated, beaten and even tortured.

Ghias Aljundi, who fled Syria 13 years ago, said he received phone calls from people claiming to be from the embassy after he got involved in the almost-weekly protests in Britain's capital.

"They told me to stop my activities, otherwise they could reach me," he said. "It was an uncomfortable feeling, and I felt worried about my family."

Syrians in Britain say that Syrian Embassy officials have sent threatening messages to the protesters via social-networking websites, including Facebook, to try to force them to stop demonstrating. They accuse the officials of filming and photographing protesters outside the embassy and making threats against them and their families in Syria.

Mr. Aljundi was one of about 50 Syrians at a recent event organized by the human rights group Amnesty International to highlight the intimidation techniques in a report released last week, "Syria: The Long Reach of the Mukhabaraat."

Mukhabaraat is the Arabic word for intelligence agency.

There are 30,000 to 40,000 Syrians in Britain, according to Syrian activists here. Last year, Syria's government estimated that 15 million of its nationals live abroad.

Amnesty International's report details cases of more than 30 Syrian activists who have been intimidated by embassy officials in eight countries in Europe and the Americas.

"We found the pattern was a lot worse than it might have been," said researcher Neil Sammonds, who compiled the report. "It was not only people protesting outside embassies they were monitoring, but their family members back at home."

In Britain, one man reported that intelligence agency officials had visited his mother in Syria, wrecked her home and forced her to leave the country, the report says.

A Syrian activist living in Germany said her brother was forced to denounce her actions on state television.

Syrian-Americans also say they and their families have been harassed by the Syrian Embassy in the United States.

Malek Jandali, a Syrian musician in Atlanta, said his parents had been targeted by the Assad regime after he performed at a pro-reform demonstration in front of the White House in July.

He said that after the protest, security agents in Syria had beaten his elderly parents and told his mother the beating was intended to teach her a lesson about how to raise her children.

Radwan Ziadeh, who left Syria in 2007 to live in the U.S., said his brother Yassin had been arrested by men thought to be agents of air force intelligence in Syria because of Radwan Ziadeh's human rights activities. He said other members of his family were unable to travel overseas.

"They have targeted relatives of protesters, interrogating them and forcing them to sign legal papers disowning their family," Mr. Sammonds said. "Eight people are in detention and four of those have been tortured. Three people are known to have disappeared, and there is great fear.

"In the U.K., they've gone to people's houses and sent messages saying things like, 'Support your country or bad things will happen to you,' " he added. "These are things that have happened in every country."

Mr. Aljundi said foreign governments should be doing more to make it clear to embassies that they will take action against any intimidation. "London is not like Syria, there is the power of law here," he said.

A spokesman for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it encouraged demonstrators to report evidence of harassment and other crimes by embassy staff to the police.

"FCO officials have discussed this issue with the metropolitan police," the spokesman said. "We have raised our concerns directly with Syrian Embassy officials on several occasions, including the Syrian ambassador [Sami Khiyami]. He gave assurances that embassy staff was not involved and that he would take action if there was evidence to suggest they were."

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Service said it was continuing to investigate allegations of harassment.

According to BBC news reports, Mr. Khiyami was summoned to the Foreign Office in June after accusations that he and his staff had been intimidating Syrians in Britain.

At that time, a Foreign Office spokesman said it would respond "swiftly and appropriately" if any claims were substantiated.

On Monday, the Syrian Embassy in London issued a statement denying the "unsubstantiated" allegations.

"To set the record straight we, once again, underline the basic truth that the embassy is working and will continue to work in accordance to international conventions and in respect to British sovereignty," the statement reads.

"We have never spied or targeted any Syrian. ... On the contrary, our doors are open to all Syrians resident in Britain without regard to their political affiliations or any other factor," it says, noting that the embassy has been subject to vandalism four times.

Since the uprisings against Syria's regime began in March, there have been numerous protests in front of Syrian missions around the world against the brutal campaign by President Bashar Assad to quell dissent.

The United Nations estimates that 2,900 people have been killed in Syria during the regime's seven-month crackdown on protesters.

While he is worried about the repercussions of protesting, Mr. Aljundi said he must continue.

"People are dying on the streets in Syria," he said. "I think targeting families of activists is very brutal. It's emotionally blackmailing."

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