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Russell: Cartoonist paying high price

Published June 28, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tomorrow evening, at the Little America Hotel here in Salt Lake City, a young Syrian man will be honored for his courage in the face of unthinkable terror, torture, and hopelessness. He will not be there to receive it.

For the past seven months Akram Raslan has been in the Syrian regime's prison where he has been tortured, terrorized and subjected to frequent interrogations.

While tens of thousands of Syrians are suffering unspeakable deprivations because of the civil war there, it's easy to become desensitized simply because of the scope and complexity of the tragedy. It might be useful for us to focus on one person. But first a little background.

For 20 years Cartoonists Rights Network International has been the world's only human rights and free speech organization dedicated exclusively to the protection of political cartoonists who find themselves in trouble because of the power and influence of their work.

It may come as a surprise that cartoonists drawing these funny pictures of the world's political players could find themselves in trouble. But when the political players are murderous tyrants, religious fanatics, or even desperate druglords, the risk to people like cartoonists becomes understandable.

As Mark Twain once said, "against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." The tyrant might be able to call out an army to quell a rebellion in the streets, but against his own people laughing at him, there's no defense. The power of the pen is nowhere more powerful than in the hands of a daring cartoonist.

Akram Raslan knew the risks when he started drawing president Bashir al-Assad as a ruthless dictator. Two years ago, another Syrian cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, was kidnapped, driven to the outskirts of Damascus and brutally assaulted because of the growing popularity of his cartoons criticizing Assad. As the goons were finishing their work they broke his fingers, telling him that his broken hands would assure he never drew another cartoon embarrassing the big boss.

When this attack became public, political cartoonists and journalists all over the world responded with an unprecedented flood of anti-Assad cartoons, editorials and newspaper articles. The regime paid a heavy public relations price for the attack on Ferzat. This time, instead of an extrajudicial beating during the dark of night, the regime chose to trump up charges of sedition against the cartoonist. The only evidence against him will be the cartoons he has drawn that embarrass Bashir al-Assad and his minions.

Other writers and intellectuals are being sent to this trumped-up court facing imaginary charges where one's guilt is assured by simply being there.

Cartoonists Rights Network International, as part of a broad-ranging strategy to help Akram Raslam get out of danger, wrote a letter to the Syrian ambassador in Washington asking that the Assad government drop all charges against Akram and all other prisoners of conscience. While Akram's then-imminent trial was delayed indefinitely, we have unconfirmed but reliable information that additional charges of being a spy for the CIA and Israel were then leveled against him.

On Saturday night, we will honor Akram Raslan with our 13th annual Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.

We will continue to work in joint consultation with other human rights and free speech organizations to sue for Akram's safety and his release. Perhaps in 2014 he will be able to attend our annual event and accept his award then.

For the last 20 years our organization has continually fought to keep these cutting-edge, free-speech soldiers out of danger. As important to keeping them safe is assuring that they continue to be productive, fearless commentators on the political realities of the day.

Cartoonists are constantly protecting your free speech rights, one pointed, funny and subversive cartoon at a time.

Robert Russell is executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International based in Fairfax Station, Va. The organization will honor Akram Raslam at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention Saturday night.