8:12am

Sat October 15, 2011
Middle East

U.S., Europe Shield Syrian Dissidents Abroad

Originally published on Sat October 15, 2011 3:28 pm

While much of the focus this past week has been on an alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., diplomats and law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Europe also began to take aim at Syria for an alleged conspiracy to intimidate dissidents abroad.

Syrian-American Mohamad Soueid was indicted in the U.S. on charges he passed information about dissidents back to the country's intelligence services.

On Monday, a judge is set to decide whether he should remain in prison pending his trial.

An Agent Of The Syrian Government?

The 47-year-old, Syrian-born U.S. citizen is accused of gathering information about dissidents who took part in rallies outside the Syrian Embassy and the White House, according to Neil MacBride, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

"The indictment alleges that he recorded these individuals, identified them and passed personal information about the protesters back to his handlers in Syria," MacBride says. "Moreover, the indictment says that he actually communicated to his handlers in the Syrian intelligence agency that he believed violence was justified against these protesters — and that any number of methods of violence should be used to deal with them."

MacBride calls the allegations really troubling.

"The ability to peaceably assemble and protest is one of the oldest rights here in the United States," he says. "So the fact that you have an allegation that an agent for Syrian intelligence is working for the Syrian government to identify and intimidate U.S. citizens and others is a very serious charge."

The Syrian Embassy angrily dismissed the charges, saying Soueid is not an agent of the Syrian government and never provided anyone at the embassy with information about U.S. protesters. The Syrian ambassador described the case as "a flagrant effort to defame the embassy of Syria based on sheer lies and fabrications."

International Pressure

But the same case is being made in London, where British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons on Thursday that Syria has been put on notice.

"The Syrian ambassador was summoned to the foreign office this morning and told that any harassment or intimidation of Syrians in our country is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," he said.

The French foreign ministry has repeatedly summoned the ambassador there as well to protest threats against Syrian exiles.

Dissidents are pleased with this new international pressure and want to see the U.S. and Europe do more to keep the Syrian government in check.

Radwan Ziadeh, who is part of the Syrian National Council — an opposition group now being formed — welcomes the case against Soueid, who lives near him in Virginia.

"This step by the U.S. government is really important because it sends the right message to the embassy to stop the intimidation of the Syrian community in the United States," Ziadeh says. "Also, at the same time, [it] will send a message to the regime back in Damascus that the long arm of the Mukhabarat, the security forces, has to stop."

Ziadeh is among many exiles quoted in a recent Amnesty International report about the threats dissidents face and alleged attacks on their family members back home.

"My brother [is] in prison, my uncle [is] in prison, three of my cousins [are] in prison — five in my family in prison, and I have no information about them right now," he says.

One of his jailed cousins is just 14 years old, he says, and the only thing his family has heard about his brother is from a former prisoner who says he was with him and heard about his interrogations.

"All the questions during the interrogation was actually about his link to me and the question about my activities here in the U.S.," Ziadeh says.

Other Syrians who took part in demonstrations in the U.S. and in Europe have reported that their family members back in Syria have been beaten or arrested. And they hope U.S. law enforcement will continue to pursue cases to try to put a stop to this.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

While much of the focus this past week has been on that alleged Iranian assassination plot, diplomats and law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Europe also begun to examine Syria for an alleged conspiracy to intimidate dissidents abroad.

Here in the U.S., a Syrian-American was indicted on charges that he passed information about dissidents back to the country's intelligence services. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been following this story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A judge is set to decide on Monday whether Mohamad Soueid should remain in prison pending his trial. The 47-year-old Syrian-born U.S. citizen is accused of gathering information about dissidents who took part in rallies outside the Syrian embassy and the White House, according to Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

NEIL MACBRIDE: The indictment alleges that he recorded these individuals, identified them and passed personal information about the protesters back to his handlers in Syria. Moreover, the indictment says that he actually communicated to his handlers in the Syrian intelligence agency that he believed violence was justified against these protesters and that any number of methods of violence should be used to deal with them.

KELEMEN: MacBride calls the allegations really troubling.

MACBRIDE: The ability to peaceably assemble and protest is one of the oldest rights here in the United States. And so the fact that you have an allegation that an agent for Syrian intelligence is working for the Syrian government to identify and intimidate U.S. citizens and others is a very serious charge.

KELEMEN: The Syrian embassy angrily dismissed the charges, saying Soueid is not an agent of the Syrian government and never provided anyone at the Syrian embassy with information about U.S. protesters. The Syrian ambassador described the case as a flagrant effort to defame the embassy of Syria based on sheer lies and fabrications.

But the same case is being made in London, where British foreign secretary William Hague told the House of Commons on Thursday that Syria has been put on notice.

WILLIAM HAGUE: The Syrian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office this morning and told that any harassment or intimidation of Syrians in our country is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

KELEMEN: The French foreign ministry has repeatedly summoned the ambassador there as well to protest threats against Syrian exiles. Dissidents are pleased with this new international pressure and want to see the U.S. and Europe do more to keep the Syrian government in check.

Radwan Ziadeh, who is part of the Syrian National Council - an opposition group now being formed - welcomes the case against Soueid, who lives near him in Virginia.

RADWAN ZIADEH: This step by the U.S. government is really important because it sends the right message to the embassies to stop the intimidation of the Syrian community in the United States. Also, at the same time, will send a message to the regime back in Damascus that the long arm of the Mukhabarat, of the security forces, has to stop.

KELEMEN: Ziadeh is among many exiles quoted in a recent Amnesty International report about the threats dissidents face and alleged attacks on their family members back home.

ZIADEH: My brother in prison, my uncle in prison, three of my cousins in prison - five in my family in prison, and I have no information about them right now.

KELEMEN: One of his jailed cousins is just 14 years old, he says, and the only thing his family has heard about his brother is from a former prisoner who says he was with him and heard about his interrogations.

ZIADEH: All the questions during the interrogation was actually about his link to me and the question about my activities here in the U.S.

KELEMEN: Other Syrians who took part in demonstrations here and in Europe have reported that their family members back in Syria have been beaten or arrested. And they hope U.S. law enforcement will continue to pursue cases to try to put a stop to this. Michele Kelemen, NPR's, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.