An estimated crowd of more than 20,000 has turned out for the funerals of victims killed in a Syrian government attack on a mosque housing protesters in the city of Daraa, which in recent days has seen some of Syria's largest demonstrations in decades.
Twenty-five people have been confirmed dead, but witnesses say the toll could be far greater. Daraa is under curfew, and the Syrian government has reportedly issued announcements telling residents they will be shot if they leave their houses.
Today, Democracy Now! interviewed prominent Syrian human rights attorney and former political prisoner Haitham Maleh in Damascus, and with his son, Iyas Maleh, in Brussels.
"We try to repeat to ask for our freedom, for democracy in Syria," says 80-year-old Haitham, who was released from prison earlier this month. "We hear what happened in Tunis, in Egyptian. So, the people in Syria is a part of the Arabic people all over the Arabic world.
Iyas, who is also a prominent human rights activist, describes what is happening in Daraa. Here is an excerpt from his interview.
IYAS MALEH: The problem in Daraa started, I want to say almost a month ago, when little kids were spraying, using spray paint, on the wall the phrase "Down with the Assad regime," I believe. Four of them, from the same family, the Beyazid [phon.] family, were arrested. We are talking about kids between the age of 10 and 13, 14 years old. Then, on the next day, there was also a group of students in elementary school, again under the age of 15, you know. They were screaming in the yard in the school in the break time, "Down with the Assad regime." And 10 of them were arrested by the security services. So, we had about 14 young children detained, until today. I think just yesterday we heard that some of them were released.
So, during that time, the families of those children have put the authorities on notice that if they are not released, then basically the population of Daraa will go down to the street. And sure enough, when they did not release them, then we saw--I believe the first day we had about 10,000 to 15,000 people from Daraa in the streets on March the 17th. On that day, six people were dead. The next day, we heard of the authorities using gas bombs to disperse people, and a child, 10 years old, got hit with one of the bombs, and he died the next day.
And the death toll keeps increasing. Obviously, as you mentioned earlier, when they barged in the mosque of al-Omari Mosque, we had numbers of death, about 10 to 15 people, lots of injured. The videos that we saw yesterday, as you mentioned, are horrible. We see dead bodies laying down in the street, and people are screaming for help, medical help, doctors. A doctor who was treating people in the mosque of al-Omari was also shot and killed.
This is the situation right now on the ground. The city is under siege. And people don't have internet or telephone services to use to ask for help. Media is not able to get in and cover, so we are relying on people, you know, sneaking out those kind of videos to follow up with the news.
The people of Syria have been given very limited access to the Internet for the past years. They do not have access to Facebook, to YouTube, to any of the social media that the rest of the world enjoy. Then, even while they were having those restrictions, some of the Syrians, activists, were able to use proxies and get around the limitation.
While they were doing that, the security forces still were monitoring what everybody has been putting on their pages, on Facebook and other websites. And they have threatened families of Syrians who live in exile abroad who have put things that the government did not like either on Facebook or on other websites. And those who live inside Syria have faced, you know, major consequences, where they were detained, harassed, called for interviews with the security services several times, and they were pushed around to remove even phrases that they put on their website or on their Facebook. And if they don't, then their families were put in danger, not themselves even. I mean, they threatened the mother of someone who put something they didn't like--did not like on their Facebook. They threatened the child of someone who did that. It's horrible. I mean, they really put the population under siege.
So, later on, after this Arab world uprisings that we've seen in Tunisia and in Egypt, Syria decided to open up Facebook. A lot of people thought that maybe this was a good gesture, you know, opening up the internet for the Syrian population. I believe the reason they did that, because they were not able to monitor closely. When people use proxy, then it's hard to find out who is doing what. They can't follow IP addresses. And the reason, in my opinion, they opened it up so they can track people better.
DEMOCRACY NOW! HOST AMY GOODMAN: So, Iyas Maleh, we now have the situation in Daraa, not clear how many people dead, Reuters reporting 25, Al Jazeera saying witnesses told them something like a hundred people dead, with the demands being end of emergency law, release of all political prisoners. About 10 percent of the people marched, 20,000 people of 250,000, and a major march is planned tomorrow. What are that plans? What do you expect to see?
IYAS MALEH: Well, we are expecting to see like we saw on March 15th. You know, five different cities have demonstrations, although they were small. Now, with what's going on in Daraa, we're expecting the numbers to be--to grow a lot more and to be in more cities than just the five that started on March 15th. I mean, it's horrible, the things that people are seeing and the messages I'm getting every night. I stay up 'til 3:00, 4:00 in the morning getting messages: "Please do something." I mean, people are begging for people outside to spread the news, you know, and spread the messages so the international community will stand with the Syrian people and not with this regime anymore.