03/04/2012 12:08 pm ET Updated May 04, 2012

Leave the Artists Alone

More than a year after the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East,
the picture in Syria remains bleak. Nearly 6,000 lives have been lost
in President Bashar al-Assad's ruthless efforts to suppress his
peoples' calls for democratic reforms. The body count continues to
rise as government forces pound Homs, a stronghold of the uprising.

In the course of this conflict, Assad has predictably cracked down on
free speech by silencing critical media and disconnecting citizens
from the Internet. Syria's conflict reminds us that freedom of speech
is an essential human right -- something we all strive for but
relatively few enjoy.

You can measure freedom in a society by the attitude its government
has towards freedom of expression. And Syria's prominent artists,
especially those who have publicly criticized the regime through
comedy and satire, have paid a heavy price.

Ibrahim Qashoush, known as the "nightingale of the revolution,"
performed songs mocking Assad in the early days of the uprising. His
popularity peaked with the protest anthem "Come on Bashar, Leave" --
and it was the final straw for the regime.

Just four months after the first public demonstrations were held in
Syria, Qashoush was found dead in a river with his throat cut and his
vocal chords ripped out.

Renowned artist Ali Farzat lampooned Assad with political cartoons,
famously depicting him joining Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a
getaway car. In retaliation, Assad's thugs kidnapped and beat Farzat,
breaking both of his hands before dumping him on the side of the road.

Farzat was fortunate to escape with his life. He fled Syria and his
fame has only grown. He continues to publish satirical cartoons for an
international audience. In January, he was one of 50 Syrian artists to
publish an open letter calling on the Assad regime to cease violence
against the country's creative class. The letter describes
assassinations and mutilations. It claims thousands have been

We take for granted our right to challenge our leaders in government.
But millions of people around the world face detention, violence, and
even death for laughing at their government's expense. Bloggers in
Egypt and China are being detained. Filmmakers are imprisoned in Iran.
A writer in Cameroon was locked up for five months for writing a book
about the president's wife.

To shine a light on the oppression endured by Syrians and millions
more around the world -- and to celebrate our own freedom of expression
-- Amnesty International is reviving the Secret Policeman's Ball today in New York City. Dating back to 1976, this event has promoted
human rights and free speech through political satire, comedy and
musical performance.

One of the guests we're honoring at this year's ball is the famed
Burmese comedian and satirist Zarganar. Known for his biting jokes
against the ruling military junta, in 2008 Zarganar was sentenced to
35 years for criticizing the government's anemic response to Cyclone
Nargis -- the deadliest natural disaster in Burma's history. After
intensive political pressure, he was granted an amnesty last year and

For millennia, satire has provided a powerful means for people to
respond to the actions of their government. When asked to recommend a
book about Athens -- the birthplace of democracy -- Plato is said to
have suggested the satirical plays of Aristophanes.

The world has changed dramatically since then. But, like Aristophanes,
political comedians, satirists and others who use creative means to
express their dissatisfaction with government, continue to endure

When the violence in Syria is over, and the people have their say,
history will honor the homegrown champions of creative expression --
Ibrahim Qashoush, Ali Farzat, and countless others - honored for their
courage and impact. Let's make sure their sacrifices have not been
made in vain.

Salil Shetty is the secretary-general of Amnesty International.