JOHANNESBURG -- One of the most prominent opponents of the Syrian regime fears for his life and is in hiding, but that has not stopped him from speaking out, his son said Thursday during a visit to South Africa.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has used brutal force against pro-democracy protests, but the demonstrations have only grown. Human Rights Watch says more than 1,300 Syrians have been killed since the protests began four months ago.
Iyas Maleh said his father, 80-year-old Haitham al-Maleh, remains in Syria but has fled his home and is reluctant to use his mobile phone for fear that Syrian security agents will trace him. Maleh said his father, who has been a critic of the Syrian regime for decades, has used other means to speak out, including e-mails and interviews over voice-over-Internet devices. Maleh spoke Thursday during an interview with The Associated Press in South Africa's largest city.
"The fear is really not an arrest," Maleh said of his father, who has spent years in Syrian prisons for his political activism. "They might actually try to get rid of him."
Maleh said neighbors had told the family that security agents seen near his father's home have been saying "they have orders to shoot and not to arrest anymore," and that one young neighbor had been offered money to assault his father.
Maleh said that when the neighbor reported the offer to him, his father joked that he should have demanded more, and split the money with him.
Amnesty International has included al-Maleh among at least a dozen prominent rights and political activists in Syria it believes have been forced into hiding after receiving threats of violence and arrests.
Al-Maleh was arrested in 2009 for "spreading false information" after giving a television interview that criticized Assad's government. He was held pending trial on that charge until his release in March following an amnesty issued by Assad. Al-Maleh also was imprisoned from 1980 to 1986 after demanding constitutional reforms.
While Assad's regime has used force against peaceful protests, it also has called for dialogue.
Maleh said his father would boycott talks Assad has scheduled for Sunday.
"He believes that the opportunity for dialogue has passed," Maleh said. "With the use of violence against protesters, there is no legitimacy to this dialogue call."
Maleh, who lives in Belgium, is in South Africa this week with four other exiled Syrian activists who are calling on South Africa to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violence in their homeland.
The activists charge that South Africa, which holds a rotating seat on the council, has been reluctant to even allow debate on the resolution because it believes a resolution it voted for on Libya has been misused.
Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for the South African foreign affairs department, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the delegation's charges, or say whether government officials would meet the Syrians.
South African officials have been outspoken critics of NATO airstrikes on Libya, saying the West has overstepped a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians in Libya.
Maleh and the other members of his delegation stressed they were not calling for international military intervention in Syria. They say a resolution condemning the violence would encourage Syrians determined to secure democracy peacefully. They say it would also isolate Assad's regime, and perhaps persuade some within it to change sides.
(This version CORRECTS Adds quotes, background, byline. Corrects spelling of subject's name from Haytham to Haitham.)