BEIRUT -- Ibrahim Qashoush's lyrics moved thousands of protesters in Syria who sang his jaunty verses at rallies, telling President Bashar Assad, "Time to leave." So when his body was dumped in the river flowing through his hometown, his killers added an obvious message: His throat was carved out.
Qashoush's slaying underlines how brutal Syria's turmoil has become as authorities try to crush a persistent uprising. His fellow activists are convinced he was killed by security forces and fear it could mark a new campaign to liquidate protest leaders.
An estimated 1,600 civilians have died in the crackdown on the largely peaceful protests that have been raging around Syria for more than four months, most from shootings by troops on anti-Bashar rallies. Qashoush's case was a rare, targeted killing of a prominent activist – made more chilling by the clear intention to send a bloody message.
The 42-year-old Qashoush, a father of three boys, was a fireman in the central Syrian city of Hama who wrote poetry in his spare time, said a close friend, Saleh Abu Yaman. Before the uprising began in mid-March, he'd write about love or hard economic times.
"All the poems and songs he wrote were by instinct. He used to be sitting with his friends and then start reciting a poem," Abu Yaman said.
But once the protests erupted and spread, Qashoush turned his pen to the uprising. Hama became one of the hottest centers of the demonstrations. In early June, security forces shot dead 65 people there, and since than it has fallen out of government control, with protesters holding the streets and government forces ringing it, conducting overnight raids into the city.
The hometown son's star rose with the city. At nearly every protest, the crowds were singing his most popular lyric, "Come on, Bashar, time to leave." It was put to a bouncy tune, and his poems rang with a down-to-earth, jokey
"Screw you, Bashar, and screw those who salute you. Come on, Bashar, time to leave!" hundreds of thousands sang behind a singer on stage in Hama's central Assi Square during a rally at the beginning of the month. "Freedom is at our doors. Come on, Bashar, time to leave!"
Two days later, on July 3, Qashoush disappeared.
Abu Yaman says he was told by witnesses that Qashoush was walking to work in central Hama when a white vehicle stopped, several men jumped out and muscled him into the car. They then sped away.
"We immediately knew he was captured by security agents," Abu Yaman told The Associated Press.
Early the next day, residents found his body in the Orontes River, which cuts through Hama. His throat had been cut away. YouTube footage of his body shows him being put on a bed, his head flopping loosely to show a gaping, bloody wound on the front of his neck where his throat used to be.
"This is a purely criminal act," said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which track the protests in Syria. "They executed him."
Repeated calls to Qashoush's home by the AP were unanswered over the past days. It is nearly impossible to independently verify the claims on either side of the conflict in Syria, where the government has banned most foreign journalists and restricts coverage by reporters inside the country.
Since the uprising began, there have been several cases of protesters being detained by security force, only to have their bodies handed over later to their families, often with brutal marks of torture. Among them were two boys detained during protests in the southern province of Daraa in April. The body of one, 15-year-old Tamer Mohammed al-Sharei, was bruised, his teeth broken in; the other, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, had a gaping wound in his skull, a broken neck and was mutilated – his penis severed.
But Qashoush's case appeared distinct. Many prominent activists have been arrested, but there have been few instances of them being swiftly killed and dumped in a way so overtly intended to send a message.
Idilbi said he fears it could signal a new tactic of targeting protest organizers. The singer who sang Qashoush's song has gone into hiding, activists say.
Like the two slain boys, Qashoush has since become a rallying point for protesters. Thousands attended his funeral on July 4, at Hama's northern cemetery of Hamra was attended of thousands of Hama's residents. Crowds have sung his songs at protests since. A video posted on a Facebook page dedicated to Qashoush proclaims, "They killed him in order to silence him. They don't know that he lives in the hearts of millions."
"He was the nightingale of the revolution," Abu Yaman said.