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Syrian Human Rights Defender Honored


Now to the war in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has gained ground against rebel fighters in recent weeks, shifting the outlook on the battlefield. According to activists, government warplanes struck rebel positions in northern Syria this weekend. At least 40 people were killed. These military advances, along with cooperation in dismantling its chemical weapons arsenal, make it harder to imagine that the regime will fall.

Hanadi Zahlout has been fighting for human rights in Syria since before the revolution began. The U.S. State Department recently presented her with its Human Rights Defenders Award.

While in Syria, Zahlout organized activists and participated in peaceful demonstrations. The Syrian government imprisoned her three times for her work. We spoke with her from Paris through an interpreter.

HANADI ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) The longest period I was held the first time, it was for four months. The first two months were in a political security, high-security prison. And then I was transferred to a woman's prison. The first 51 days, I was held in solitary confinement in a very small one-meter-by-one and a half meter. But I kept my spirits up and I was able to overcome the trauma.

MARTIN: You are an Alawite, the same religious minority group that Bashar al-Assad comes from. Did you have a hard time winning over people's trust in wider circles in your work?

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) Before the revolution, I've been very active in the field of women rights and children's rights and that's how I build my reputation. After the revolution and after the prison experience, it was a bit more difficult to build trust with other activists. It took time to gain their trust and win them over through my ability to organize protests and try to communicate the message that not all Alawites are supporters of the regime. And that we were not all thugs and lots of Alawite in the opposition paid a high price for standing against the regime.

MARTIN: Why did you finally leave Syria?

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) First of all, for personal consideration, I had a back injury during my first prison experience and my health deteriorated during the second and third time I was arrested. I have became a burden on my fellow activist who helped me hide in a basement in his village. My fellow activist would secure medicine and food without me having to go out. But then it became even more difficult. And family-wise, I became also a burden on them. They could not take the pressure of the society, especially when my name started to be prominent within the activist circles.

MARTIN: So after you were released from prison, you felt you were still being targeted by the regime?

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) I have received threats through other released political prisoners that if I continued my activity within the opposition, that this will severe consequences over my life. So I believe that if I stayed I would continue, but this would put a danger on my life.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea when you might be able to go home?

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) I hope very soon. I lost my father during my first imprisonment and I did not know except after I was released. And I really hope that I don't lose my mother, being away from Syria. My return to Syria is conditioned on the removal of Bashar al-Assad's regime.

MARTIN: How likely do you think that will be? As we speak, the fighting in Syria continues. This past week we learned that a top rebel commander was killed and that the Assad regime seems to be gaining ground. What does an end to this conflict look like to you at this point?

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) By default, the media covers news in the battlefield, covers news about assassinations, how the regime from one side targets the Freedom Army and how the extremists, the terrorists al-Qaida and Musra, target also the Freedom Army. But the media does not cover the real change that is taking place within the society.

(Through Translator) All the initiatives that are turning into more of NGOs and civil society institutions, some of them are targeting, are serving education, illiteracy eradication, food security. All of these initiatives are not being covered, and this is the real change that is taking place in society but media fails to cover that.

MARTIN: So does that mean you're optimistic about what the future in Syria will look like?

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) I'm very optimistic because I have my faith in the Syrians to make the changes in the society to lessen the gap, the sectarian gap, between the different sects, restore order and bring prosperity to my country. I have faith in the Syrians.

MARTIN: Can those changes that you want to see happen, can those changes happen if Bashar al-Assad stays in power?

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) If Bashar al-Assad's regime stays, this hinders progress within the society. He commits real massacres against the Syrians. But the real social progress will not stop even if Bashar is still in power. March 15th marks a significant change in the history of Syria. We are still paying a high price for a revolution but I believe that this will eventually lead to the removal of the regime.

MARTIN: Hanadi Zahlout is a Syrian Alawite. She recently received the Human Rights Defenders Award from the U.S. State Department. Thank you so much for talking with us.

ZAHLOUT: (Through Translator) Thank you. Shokran

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.