MPs are wrong to welcome the son of a hated Syrian ... Rifaat al-Assad may be responsible for the deaths of thousands. So why is his son being welcomed at the Houses of Parliament?
IMAGE Rifaat al-Assad (centre) may be responsible for the massacre of thousands of Syrians. Photograph: Santiago Lyon/AP
In London next Monday a young man from The Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria will be addressing MPs and Lords at a private meeting in the Houses of Parliament.
Although he will be speaking out against the Bashar al-Assad regime, the young man also happens to be a first cousin of Syria's president. His name is Ribal al-Assad and the genuine Syrian opposition regard him warily since he represents one side of a decades-old squabble within the ruling family.
It is widely believed that Ribal's father, Rifaat, tried to stage a coup against his brother Hafiz, who was president from 1971 to 2000. Hafiz expelled Rifaat from Syria and he has been obsessed with returning ever since. His sons, including Ribal, are his cheerleaders.
But instead of throwing Rifaat out of Syria, Hafiz should have put him on trial. He is possibly the most hated of all Syrians, including those who are still part of the regime. Few in the region have more innocent blood on their hands.
To Ribal, as he told Channel 4 News, Rifaat is a democrat and has been calling for democracy since the 1970s. Perhaps nobody heard him over the sound of tank fire. As a 'democrat' he played a very curious role as head of the ruthless internal security services. Human Rights Watch reported that he was responsible for the massacre of more than 1,000 prisoners in the notorious Tadmur jail in 1980.
But the city with which Rifaat will always be associated is Hama. In February 1982, Hama was besieged and shelled for 27 days, following an uprising in the city. Estimates of numbers killed vary from 10,000 to 40,000. The year before, in another massacre, 350 men and boys were simply rounded up and shot.
Visiting Hama has always been a haunting experience. The old city barely remains and the pockmarks of the machine-gun bullets are still visible. A massive hotel stands on area that was razed to the ground and where bodies reputedly lie.
The physical damage is nothing compared to the psychological scars, however. The past still haunts the people of Hama. In April, I interviewed a survivor of this 1980s crackdown. He told me that, 30 years on from these awful events, the killing of protesters had triggered awful flashbacks of the dead bodies under which he was almost buried alive, including those of his brothers and father. He was one of the lucky ones and, despite being shot 11 times, his family treated him in secret and then smuggled him to safety in Europe.
Hama last week once again became the centre of protests against the Assad regime. It saw the largest demonstration in Syria yet, reportedly drawing up to 500,000 people on to the city's streets. The governor of Hama, who allowed the protest to take place, has since been sacked for permitting the city to show such wide-ranging defiance. The governor was so popular he was carried on peoples' shoulders in a genuine sign of affection that President Bashar can only dream of.
Hama, however, is being made to pay the price once more. Reports say at least 16 people were killed in the city during a recent 48-hour period, adding to the 60 killed on 3 June.
Only days ago thousands were watching the compelling video of a man singing to a huge crowd in Assi square in Hama, chanting for freedom, singing 'Irhal ya Bashar' ('Get out Bashar!'). The crowd goes into rapture as he sings, 'Tuzz fiik yaa Bashar' (roughly, 'Fuck off, Bashar') and after appearing on YouTube it is being sung at demonstrations across Europe.
But the man who wrote the lyrics, Ibrahim Kashush, will hear it no more. It seems his body was found, washed up in the Orontes, his throat slashed. In Arabic, the Orontes is called Nahr al-Assi ('the rebellious river') and two of its riverbank cities, Hama and Homs, have perhaps been the most rebellious in Syria. Historically they have been rivals but today they are united in one struggle. Homsis have gone into the streets chanting Ibrahim's name.
Back in the UK, not only should there be questions in parliament about why Rifaat is allowed into Britain, but Syrians want to know why British parliamentarians see fit to choose his son and chief apologist, Ribal, to address them. The timing, whilst Hama is under attack, is especially galling. As someone tweeted to me, 'How would the west feel if the son of Bin Laden was invited to address the Arab League', especially if he was an apologist for his father? Syrians on the streets of Hama, Homs and London are rightly disgusted at news of the invite.
The office of the MP hosting the event, Andrew Rosindell, told me that Ribal does not share his father's politics. Yet Ribal and Rifaat's entourage are about the only living souls claiming his father is innocent. BBC researchers could not find anyone who believed Rifaat was not responsible for the Hama massacre and when asked on BBC Hardtalk if his father had ever condemned the massacre, Ribal merely quoted his father's claim that he had never been to Hama and had nothing to do with the city.
It is a crime that Rifaat enjoys his freedom here in London, while the people of Hama whose slaughter he is accused of masterminding, are fighting not just for freedom, but for their very lives.
Ribal's hosts in parliament should ask whether he still works for his father, if he supports his goal of returning to Syria and whether he can prove that none of his activities or his various organisations have been funded by his father. If he cannot, it will be an insult to all those who are bravely laying down their lives in the struggle for freedom if Ribal is entertained in Westminst