I have met many inspiring people in my time, from activists to nobel peace prize winners, and yesterday, it was my privilege to listen to someone who left most of them standing. Dr Haytham el-Hamawi came to Sunderland to share his story with us as part of our 'Syria Awareness Week'.
His testimony was deeply moving and remarkable. It clearly illustrated why the Assad regime is so detested that millions have people have risked everything to bring an end to his rule. Haytham was sentenced to 4 years in a Syrian prison for setting up a peace library, and organising a silent protest march against the US war in Iraq. His crime was effectively to try and build up 'civic responsibility' in his local community. He first incurred the wrath of the state by making a series of cartoons which encouraged people to 'curb public smoking'; 'refuse to bribe officials'; and 'do community tidy ups'. For this, he and his father was arrested and 'disapeared'.
After his arrest, he was beaten, continually sworn at and put in a room 3m by 3m with up to 40 other prisoners. Eventually he was sent to a 'judge' in a military court. He was asked if he would undertake such activities again. he said 'Yes - because I have done nothing wrong'. For this he was sentenced to 3 years imprison. the Judge then asked if he wanted to plead for mercy. His reply was. 'I need justice, not mercy' and for this remark a further year was added to his sentence.
His first 7 months in prison was spent in solitary confinement, and the very first month spent in complete darkness. He describes the horror of when they eventually replaced the light bulb. He then wished he could remain in darkness, because he could finally see the squalid conditions of his cell and the disgusting state of the black piece of plastic he had to eat all his meals from.
Dr Haytham was humble and painfully honest. He is a man of peace and determination. One day, one day soon, Bashar al-Assad will fall. My prayer is that great men like Haytham will be able to return to Syria, and make that nation great again.