Menu JTA Search

Syria Frees Four Jews from Prison, in First Positive Gesture on Issue

Syria has freed four Jews imprisoned for attempting to leave the country, the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews reported Tuesday.

The release represents the first tangible success of diplomatic and grass-roots efforts on behalf of Syrian Jewry that have been building in recent months. At the same time, it highlights the oppression and restrictions inflicted on the 4,000 Jews living in Syria.

“We hope it portends a change of attitude on the part of the Assad government, leading to freedom of emigration for all Jews,” said Gilbert Kahn, executive director of the council.

“We’re appreciative, but the fact is that those people should never have been put in prison in the first place,” said Abraham Bayer, director of international concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

“Why is it a crime in 1991 that people should be free and want to be reunited with their families?” he asked.

Two Jews remain in Syrian jails, where they have been held since 1987: Eli and Salim Swed, brothers arrested after Eli Swed was charged with visiting Israel. The two reportedly have been staging an unprecedented hunger strike in prison.

The four who were released Nov. 28 include Rahmun Darwish and Joseph Raful Sabato. They were arrested Sept. 25, 1990, along with Darwish’s fiancee and Sabato’s wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time. She gave birth in prison and was later released, as was Darwish’s fiancee.

Also freed last week were Subhi and Sa’id Castica, two brothers arrested on or about May 1 of this year, along with their wives and two infants. The women were beaten, then released with the children after three weeks in captivity.

STEPPED-UP DIPLOMACY

The release of the four Jews followed by two days an appeal on their behalf by Israeli representative Ilan Mor to the General Assembly’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee.

The appeal, which was the first mention of Syrian Jewry at the United Nations in two years and the first major address on the subject ever at the General Assembly, came at a time when the topic of human rights is receiving more serious consideration than ever at the United Nations.

And it came at a time when the plight of Syrian Jewry has assumed an increasingly high profile on the international agenda.

President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker have repeatedly discussed the issue in their meetings with Syrian leaders.

Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem, who is of Syrian descent, has also raised the issue.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said in May that “there can be no talk of a peace process while Syrian Jews are held hostage,” and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir mentioned the issue in speeches during his U.S. visit last month.

Before recessing last week, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions calling on Syria to grant its Jews the right of free emigration and to release its Jewish prisoners from jail.

While Syria detains without trial and tortures its own citizens, particularly political activists and members of banned Palestinian groups, Jews face unique restriction, including special surveillance.

The emigration restriction is particularly harsh on young Jewish women. The success of men in escaping created a demographic imbalance.

In 1989, the Syrian government promised the State Department that it would look favorably on applications to emigrate submitted by Syrian Jews with relatives abroad or by unmarried women.

“Nothing has happened,” said Bayer. “They didn’t keep their word. The number who came out and were reunited with their family was less this year than last.”

NEXT STORY