AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian lawyer Razan Zaitouna has been forced into hiding, her family members detained and her fellow activists jailed, killed or forced to flee the country for their pro-democracy activities.
But Zaitouna, 34, says the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad must remain peaceful.
“I still insist that maintaining a peaceful uprising is the best guarantee for its victory,” Zaitouna, who last week was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya award, said in a phone interview from an undisclosed location in Syria.
“It is normal that after seven months of bloody repression, lack of unity among the opposition and lack of international action that we see the surfacing of a militarization of the revolution.
“Our role as activists is to work on stopping these leanings,” she said.
The Anna Politkovskaya award, which honours women human rights defenders in conflict zones who take personal risks to stand up for victims, is named after the murdered Russian journalist who reported on the killing of civilians in Chechnya by Russian forces and their local allies.
In March, Zaitouna was part of a crowd of 200, most of them women, who raised pictures of political prisoners and of children arrested and beaten — some had their nails taken out — for writing on walls “downfall of the regime,” the cry of the revolts against the autocratic leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
The crowd, who gathered clandestinely at the Marja square in Damascus, also included Rana Jawabra, an activist from Deraa, dissident Suhair al-Atassi and lawyer Catherine Altalli.
They were leading figures in a new generation of mostly secular female human rights defenders who sought to fill a gap after Assad imprisoned hundreds of independent and opposition figures to stamp out dissent to his rule in the last four years.
Plainclothes secret police attacked the crowd with batons as soon as they raised the pictures, dragged women by their hair and arrested dozens, igniting street protests in Deraa and elsewhere in the country.
Many have since been jailed, killed, threatened or forced to flee Syria, or have joined thousands counted among the ranks of the disappeared.
Zaitouna avoided arrest but she went into hiding. Her husband, Wael Hamada, was held incommunicado in an unknown location for almost three months. His brother Abdelrahman, a 20-year-old student, was also detained.
“The two men were apparently held as pawns to force Razan Zaitouna to surrender herself to the government and to punish her for her human rights work,” the group that awards the prize, Reach All Women in War (RAW), said in a statement, adding that Zaitouna’s husband had been tortured during his detention.
Zaitouna has since set up a grassroots organisation backing demonstrations demanding the removal of Assad and is documenting human rights violations she says are culminating in the killing of 20 civilians a day. State media has dubbed her a foreign agent for criticising repression.
Friends say the uprising has transformed her from a soft-spoken lawyer — she trained under veteran lawyer Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge who spent nine years as a political prisoner — to an astute underground operative.
They say she moves undercover, showing up suddenly at the wakes of dead protesters and giving speeches that have aroused emotions and increased the risks that she could be killed as assassinations of activists intensify.
“She is utterly brave. She has disappeared since the beginning of the uprising and yet she is playing a role of a dynamo. She is relentlessly putting together files of the prisoners and those killed and disappeared, and delivering the voice of the revolution to the outside world,” said dissident Syrian writer Hakam Baba.
“Her husband was being tortured and she continued working on documenting killings, rape, torture and arrest. She is still an idealist, believing that the perpetrators will face justice and that masses of Syrians on the streets will bring down the regime,” another woman activists said.
The demonstrations have decreased in number in regions where tanks and troops have been deployed, while some of Assad’s opponents are beginning to take up arms. Sectarian tensions are also surfacing between majority Sunni and Alawites, especially in Syria’s third largest city Homs.
Zaitouna said that as soon as tanks and troops leave one region, protests break out again, but acknowledged that “continued repression without alternatives from the opposition or the international community could drive the Street also in the direction of violence.”
“So far there has been great awareness by the people,” she said, adding that sectarian violence has been limited to “individual incidents.”
“From the first moment of the revolution the regime has been pushing towards turning people to violence and turning the revolution into a sectarian issue. It knows that it could kill the uprising this way,” Zaitouna said.
Asked how a revolt could remain peaceful, Zaitouna said the opposition, which formed a National Council, needed to show leadership and that more practical support was needed from overseas.
“The opposition has to come out with a unified statement on what sort of international role is needed. Syria is a member of the United Nations and it is the duty of the international community to protect the Syrian population from the crimes of the regime,” she said.
Russia and China, who wield vetoes as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, last week blocked a European-drafted resolution urging Syria to halt its crackdown.
“The regime is resorting to more violence because it is facing life or death and it has run into a real economic crisis and its army and security forces are spread all over the country,” Zaitouna said.
She said increased defections among the military were signs that the regime would collapse and appealed to defectors to “leave their weapons and join the protesters in the street.”
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall