|Cypriot journalist encounters Syrian secret police|
IT MIGHT not exactly be Banged up Abroad, but a Cypriot journalist got more than he bargained for during a recent trip to Damascus when he ended up
being questioned by the secret police there.
In an article published yesterday, Simerini reporter Marios Demetriou recounted his ordeal in the Syrian capital, starting at passport control at Damascus airport and ending at an interrogation room at the headquarters of the Syrian secret police.
In the past, the journalist has authored a number of stories where he criticises Syrian authorities’ treatment of Syrian Kurds.
Demetriou, on assignment last week in Damascus for a story about a growing trend among Cypriots to visit the country for shopping and health-care services, says trouble began the moment he set foot in Syria.
At passport control in Damascus, he was flagged by airport police as his name apparently came up on a black list of “undesirables,” as he puts it.
Demetriou was then held for two hours at the airport police office. He claims that at no point was he told what was wrong.
Finally, his passport was stamped but a Syrian police officer handed him a sealed envelope. Demetriou was told to take the envelope with him to the Immigration Department in Damascus the following day.
“Being unaware of the contents of the envelope, I could only guess,” Demetriou writes.
On arriving at his hotel, the journalist called the paper in Cyprus and told them what happened. He also contacted the Union of Cyprus Journalists and got in touch with the Cypriot ambassador in Damascus.
Demetriou says the calls set off a “feverish political thriller” behind the scenes, with Cypriot officials sending demarches to the Syrian government. At the highest, Interior Minister Neoclis Sylikiotis contacted his Syrian counterpart to protest Demetriou’s treatment. The Foreign Ministry and House Speaker Marios Garoyian were also involved.
On the following day, a Sunday, Demetriou went to the Immigration Department, escorted by an official of the Cypriot Embassy in Damascus who was fluent in Arabic.
The journalist handed the envelope to the head of Immigration, who after reading it told Demetriou he had to visit the secret police offices. Even though he suspected the reason for this treatment, he had still not been told what it was about.
He soon found out at the headquarters of the Syrian secret police, a building complex he describes as a “fort” guarded by hundreds of armed plainclothes agents.
Demetriou was questioned for about an hour by a Syrian officer, in English, who also acted as an interpreter for a second man who noted down the journalist’s answers.
Eventually, the line of questioning led to Demetriou’s past coverage of Syrian Kurds who leave that country and come to live in Cyprus. The journalists had been critical of Syrian state authorities’ treatment of the Kurdish community.
The officer had a file containing Demetriou’s reports for Simerini, translated into Arabic.
Next, Demetriou says, he was taken to the office of the second-in-command at the secret police.
This officer was extremely polite and gracious, Demetriou acknowledges. After delivering a short speech on the traditional friendly ties between Syria and Cyprus, the officer got to the point.
He informed Demetriou that the issue of the Kurds is a sensitive matter for Syria and often cause for “misunderstandings” with foreign reporters.
Finally, he assured Demetriou he had no reason to worry about his safety and that Demetriou was most welcome to visit Syria again in the future.
On leaving, Demetriou was given a piece of paper, which he was instructed to hand to airport police on his departure.
“This paper was…a ticket to freedom and the democratic world…back to my beloved Cyprus,” Demetriou says.
By Elias Hazou
Cyprus mail Ltd