It was the ultimatum he had dreaded for years—the choice between family and politics, the people he loves and the cause he believes in. Malath Aumran, the prominent Syrian activist, was told by government agents Wednesday that if he doesn’t publicly renounce the political protests in Syria, security forces will arrest his family.
The threat appeared in an unlikely place—a post on his Facebook wall. After years of hiding behind a pseudonym to protect his identity, Aumran had finally been uncovered by the Syrian police.
Aumran, the subject of a feature in this week’s Newsweek magazine, took on his pseudonym three years ago, when, as a student activist in Damascus, he came under pressure from the Mukhabarat, or secret police. Back then, he convinced police he was through with activism. “I don’t want them to think I’m a hero,” he told Newsweek last month. “I am not trying to prove anything to the secret police.”
But in reality he adopted the pseudonym to continue his work. Aumran helped organize several high-profile movements—such as the “ Enough Silence” campaign that called for the release of all political prisoners and the lifting of the emergency laws, which have stifled the country for decades—becoming one of the country’s best-known cyberactivist voices.
As detailed in the story, the Mukhabarat tried hard to flush him out—posing as reporters, fellow activists, and even pretty women, known as honey traps. With police getting close, he finally fled the country to go into hiding in neighboring Lebanon.
Living in exile didn’t slow him down, though. Aumran offered full-throated support for the protests that are sweeping the country in the wake of other Mideast revolutions. And he served as a crucial source of information on the brutal government crackdowns at a time when the government sought to impose even tougher restrictions on the flow of news.
While rights groups have put the death toll from the crackdowns at more than 100 and counting, human-rights activists have been scrambling to keep up with the arrests. There have been more than 800 so far, according to some estimates, although they’ve been difficult to track.
• David Keyes Interviews Syria’s Washington AmbassadorRazan Zeitouneh, a lawyer and activist in Damascus, says Aumran’s work has been crucial to spreading word of the protests and winning them support. He posted news updates online and spoke constantly to the regional and Western press—which is what ended up getting him caught. While listening to one of Aumran’s interviews with an Arabic TV station recently, a Mukhabarat who had interrogated him in the past recognized his voice.
Though police in the past had claimed to reveal Aumran’s true identity, this time they had their man—Aumran is Rami Nakhla, a 28-year-old from the historic southwestern city of Al-Sweida, and a well-known activist in his own right. To hammer home their point, Nakhla says, police have recently intimidated his family, visiting their homes.
Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University, calls such tactics par for the course for the regime. “They release some, arrest others, torture them for a few days. And they ask them to sign a contract [saying they won’t] participate in any demonstration again,” he says.
Ziadeh’s own kin, he adds, have lately come under threat. In retribution for his activism, his parents and siblings have been placed under a travel ban and harassed. Last week, he says, he received ominous emails accusing him of being a traitor, and warning that he was putting his family at risk. “There are a lot of cases like this,” he says. “I’m very concerned.”
Speaking by phone, with less than three hours to go before the authorities’ deadline, the normally upbeat Nakhla was tense but defiant. He said he would refuse to cooperate with police or condemn the protests—after encouraging so many people to join them, it would be “betrayal” to pull back.
Then he began a nervous wait.
“I have friends in jail. I will not fail them. I have friends who died. I will not fail them. I am responsible now for everyone I encouraged to go to the street. I will not withdraw,” he said. “And I am sure my family will understand. But it’s hard decision, you know? Maybe I will send my relative to torture tonight.”
Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.