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Riad al-Turk, the ‘Mandela of Syria,’ Dies in Exile at 93


Riad al-Turk, a veteran Syrian opposition leader known as the “Mandela of Syria” after spending nearly two decades in prison for speaking out against his country’s dictatorial regimes, died on Jan. 1 in Eaubonne, a northern suburb of Paris. He was 93.

Mr. Turk’s death, at a hospital, was confirmed by his daughter Khuzama Turk in an interview.

Mr. Turk’s life was a dark mirror of his country’s torments, and his improbable survival was testimony to his will to endure. He was imprisoned four times, tortured repeatedly and spent nearly 18 years in solitary confinement, mostly in an underground cell with no windows. “We can say that it was about my height — it was the size of a small elevator,” he said in one of his last interviews.

One instance of torture, in 1987, left him in a coma for 25 days. Described by those who knew him as a modest, simple man, Mr. Turk continuously fought the Syrian government until 2018, at the age of 88, when he reluctantly fled to France to live in exile.

His “entire life has been about dissent,” the journalist Robin Wright, who interviewed him in Damascus, wrote in her book “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East” (2008).

Mr. Turk began his career as a militant Communist, speaking out against dictatorship, and ended it as a symbol of resistance to successive tyrannies in Syria.

After being released in the spring of 1998 following nearly 18 years in prison under the long-ruling president Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Turk continued to speak out against Mr. Assad’s successor, his son Bashar al-Assad, despite knowing that he could be arrested again.

In August 2001, hundreds gathered in the Syrian city of Homs, Mr. Turk’s birthplace, to hear him speak as the secretary general of the outlawed Syrian Communist Party’s political bureau, a breakaway faction that opposed the party’s subservience to the Soviet Union and Hafez al-Assad, who had died the year before.

Mr. Turk told the crowd that the elder Assad’s regime had “relied on terror” and called Bashar’s rule “illegitimate,” saying it represented “despotism.”

Less than a month later, he was in jail for the fourth time at the age of 71. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for treason but, following international pressure, was released in November 2002 because of poor health.

Not long before his fourth arrest, the filmmaker Mohammad Ali Atassi interviewed Mr. Turk for a 2001 documentary, “The Cousin,” asking him: “You got out of prison. But did prison get out of you?”

“No,” he replied. “Prison is still in me. It’s not that I’m afraid of it or something. But because prison represents oppression, and oppression is still practiced in my country, destroying prison is still a major goal on which the country’s liberty depends.”

As a young University of Damascus law school graduate and new member of the Syrian Communist Party, Mr. Turk was first imprisoned in 1952 for speaking out against the military coup of Adib al-Shishakli. He was held for five months, tortured and never tried.

He was imprisoned again in 1958 for protesting Syria’s union with President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. He was held and tortured for 16 months, again without trial.

His third imprisonment, which began in 1980, was the most severe. Agents of Hafez al-Assad, the air force general who seized power in 1970, arrested Mr. Turk after he “refused to denounce violence by the Muslim Brotherhood” and instead declared that he was against “violence by all sides,” said Najib Ghadbian, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas. That declaration amounted to condemnation of the Assad regime, Professor Ghadbian said in an interview, adding, “He paid a heavy price” for that statement.

For nearly 18 years, Mr. Turk was kept in near total isolation, allowed only three visits throughout his incarceration. He was let out of his windowless cell for three trips to the toilet a day, during which he scavenged for bits of clothing left by other prisoners in the trash. For the first 10 years of his sentence, he slept on the floor of his cell. His only diversion was to make pictures using the hard bits of grain collected from the meager gruel his jailers gave him.

“They need to isolate me from the world,” he told Mr. Atassi in the film. “If they put me with other prisoners, they fear I would lift their morale. Isolation is constant psychological torture.”

Yet “prison didn’t break him,” Mr. Atassi said in an interview from Beirut.

Riad al-Turk was born in Homs on April 17, 1930, to Mohammed Ali Turk, a local hotelkeeper who died when Riad was very young, and his wife, Amina, a woman of limited means. Riad was raised in a school for orphans, his daughter Khuzama said. He entered law school at the University of Damascus around the age of 20, she said, and joined the Syrian Communist Party in 1952.

The rest of his life was spent in politics, “my blood and part of my life,” Mr. Turk told Mr. Atassi.

After his final release from prison, in 2002, he remained active in the Syrian opposition, signing in 2005 the Damascus Declaration, an attempt to unify the Assad regime’s various opponents. “He wanted to push for a great unification,” Mr. Atassi said.

When the uprising against the Assad regime began in 2011, one that would lead to outright civil war, Mr. Turk sought out young demonstrators, encouraging them even as he entered his eighth decade. He later acknowledged that he had underestimated the toxicity of the Islamists whom he and other opponents of Assad had initially appealed to.

“His commitment was amazing,” said Mazen Darwish, president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. “He was a symbol, a national hero.”

By 2013, Mr. Turk’s health and continued opposition had left him confined in semi-clandestinity in his small apartment in Damascus, Le Monde wrote in 2018. That year, with failing eyesight and poor health, he finally left Syria at the urging of his two daughters, undertaking a dangerous journey through Islamist-held territory to reach Turkey and eventually France, where he was accepted as an exile.

His wife, Asma Al-Faisal, who had also spent years in prison, died in exile in Canada in 2018. In addition to his daughter Khuzama, he is survived by his other daughter, Nesrin Turk.

Mr. Turk remained combative to the end, denouncing the Assad dynasty even as he acknowledged that his lifelong struggle remained unfinished.

“The verdict that the old dissident draws is that of a failure,” Le Monde wrote after going to see him in 2018, “the political testament of a man who won’t see his life’s work accomplished.”

His daughter Khuzama doesn’t see it quite that way. “He was the only man who said no to the Syrian regime,” she said. “He was the only one who said, ‘Syria won’t remain the kingdom of silence.’ He dedicated his life to the fight for democracy.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris, and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.

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