Press Release / November 24, 2021

Four decades of injustice: Syria’s longest-serving political prisoner marks 40 years in detention

Today marks 40 years since Ragheed al-Tatari, Syria’s longest-serving political prisoner, was detained by the Syrian authorities. The former air force pilot was first arrested for refusing to participate in a bombing campaign against his own people in the Syrian governorate of Hama in 1980. 

When he began his detention he was just 26 years old, today he is approaching his 67th birthday. He has spent four decades of his life behind bars, denied the right to a fair trial. He has endured horrifying abuse including being tortured in Syria’s infamous Sednaya prison and was cut off from his family for years. He has become a legend among those who have survived the horrors of detention in Syria.

Diab Serrih from the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison (ADMSP), who spent five years imprisoned with him, said:

“There are no words sufficient to describe Ragheed. Everyone who knows him is impressed by his bold and strong-willed nature.  Despite enduring decades of systematic oppression and torture –  they could not break his spirit or rid him of his smile. His case illustrates the Syrian regime’s ruthless and ongoing desire to punish any form of opposition and deny detainees their right to justice and a fair trial.” 

Ragheed al-Tatari was first arrested in 1980, along with three others, after refusing to participate in air strikes during a crackdown on the city of Hama. He was charged with disobeying orders but was later acquitted and dismissed from the air force. He fled to Jordan, then Egypt where he attempted to seek asylum, but his application was rejected. On 24 November 1981, while returning to Syria, he was arrested upon his arrival at Damascus airport. Thirty years after his arrest he discovered that a military field court had found him guilty of disclosing information to a foreign state. Proceedings before military field courts are entirely arbitrary and usually last just one or two minutes  – they can in no way be considered to constitute a legitimate trial.

Ragheed’s son, Wael al-Tatari, now based in Canada, said his father’s prolonged detention had left him traumatized to this day: 

“I couldn’t conceive what a human could do so he would deserve such a fate. I have so many questions that I have never got the chance to ask him. My dad spent more than 40 years in jail for no reason, deprived of his family – no one deserves this. They took everything away from him, his voice, his freedom – I want to shout loud enough so the world can hear about this injustice.”

Riyad Avlar, a close friend of Ragheed’s who spent 21 years in detention in Syria and is also a co-founder of ADMSP, describes him as a tenacious man with strongprinciples. He said:

“He was always smiling and trying to spread happiness  – even while detained in the most terrifying place in the world. He would make dough out of leftover breadcrumbs and create art sculptures, sharing with us his beautiful work. He made us laugh, and kept our spirits up to help us cling on to hope.”

Laila Kiki, Executive Director of The Syria Campaign said: 

“As more regional countries move to normalize ties with the Syrian authorities, Ragheed al-Tatari’s case is a reminder that unlawful detention is at the core of Assad’s rule of Syria . The world must take action to demand the release of Ragheed and all others detained for their opinions or peaceful activism. Without justice and accountability for all those unlawfully detained, imprisoned or killed, there can be no real peace and stability in Syria.” 

For more information or to arrange an interview with family or friends of Ragheed al-Tatari please contact [email protected]