Jews Jailed in Syria Launch Unprecedented Hunger Strike

Two Jewish brothers in Syria, detained without charges since 1987, have begun a hunger strike to protest their sentencing to six-and-a-half years in prison.

Jewish organizations, including the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews and the Canadian Jewish Congress National Task Force on Syrian Jews, are urging Jewish communities and others to stage protests against the prison sentences and the secret trial that preceded them.

According to Amnesty International, a human rights group, the closed trial was held March 5, apparently on charges of espionage or treason. The trial reportedly began in the fall of 1990, and was adjourned several times, Amnesty reported.

According to a 1990 human rights report on Syria issued by another human rights group, Middle East Watch, Eli and Selim Swed were originally detained for violating emigration and travel restrictions.

The Sweds, who are pharmacists, were also accused of “making contact with the enemy,” which means having traveled to Israel.

After their arrest in the fall of 1987, the brothers were held incommunicado for two years. Their families were allowed to visit them in the ‘Adra Civil Prison near Damascus starting in October 1989, according to Amnesty International.

The estimated 4,000 Jews in Syria live under harsh conditions, with little chance of emigrating.

“No other community in Syria faces such heavy surveillance and none is made to feel so completely powerless in the face of the authorities,” Middle East Watch wrote in its report.

Although the U.S. State Department last year issued a statement that the Syrian government would take a “more flexible approach” to the issue of family reunification and Syrian Jews, human rights monitors say little has changed.

The Jewish groups noted that Congress is considering legislation to bar future assistance to Syria “until such time as the Syrian government permits emigration for all its citizens.”

Syria does not currently receive U.S. aid.

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