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Syrian Doctor Among Opposition Promoting Democracy

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The authoritarian government in Syria has survived all challenges for 35 years. This morning we'll meet a man who wants to change that. He opposes the family and political party that rule his country, and even prison hasn't stopped him. Now he's helping to speed up the reforms that have been expected under the current ruler, Bashar Al-Assad. NPR's Deborah Amos has this profile.

(Soundbite of birdsong)

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

This is your hill?

Dr. KAMEL LEBUANI(ph): Yes. This is my hill.

AMOS: Dr. Kamel Lebuani did not see his farm for more than three years. He was in prison, in solitary confinement. In 2001, Lebuani was part of a small group of dissidents who publicly demanded democracy in Syria. Arrest and imprisonment was the government's response. Now just a few months out of that jail cell, he's organizing again.

Dr. LEBUANI: If I have the chance to make the gathering of the opposition here, it is very big (laughs).

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AMOS: This farm, outside the village of Zabadani, is about an hour's drive west of Damascus. Lebuani, a medical doctor, has been active in opposition politics for 20 years. But even he will tell you that Syria's human rights activists, democracy advocates and former political prisoners don't add up to a movement.

Dr. LEBUANI: In our opposition, we have half of--50 percent working with the security.

AMOS: In the opposition...

Dr. LEBUANI: In the opposition, yeah.

AMOS: You know that?

Dr. LEBUANI: Yes.

AMOS: You know that...

Dr. LEBUANI: Yes, I know them. It's a very, very big problem, and if we have not any kind of protect from outside, they will cut us into pieces.

AMOS: For that outside protection, Lebuani takes a step few in Syria are willing to take. He calls on the United States.

Dr. LEBUANI: Our people hate the US because it support the dictatorship for 60 years. I asked for a clear message that the US promise our people democracy and reform. It is a good step to avoid hating.

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AMOS: Downtown Zabadani is a summer resort crowded with tourists from the Gulf states. Lebuani works as a family doctor year-round and resumed his practice when he got out of prison.

This is your clinic?

Dr. LEBUANI: Yes. I work at night and at day, all of time.

AMOS: He knows everyone here, their medical histories all kept on file inside his head. He doesn't want the security police to know anything about anyone, even their diseases, so he has no staff.

Dr. LEBUANI: No secretary, no nurse, because they use that as a spy. No documents. I remember everything (laughs).

(Soundbite of traffic)

AMOS: He knows other secrets about this village. On a drive up into the hills, Lebuani points out a large house. This is where Saddam Hussein's half-brother lived for months, he says. Syria turned Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan over to the US military in February. Syrian authorities had claimed they'd captured al-Hasan near the border.

Did he walk around in town? Did people see him here?

Dr. LEBUANI: Yes, he can move. He had a car.

AMOS: So everybody in Zabadani knew that Sabawi was here?

Dr. LEBUANI: There are several persons from Iraqi regime here until now.

AMOS: It is also likely Syria's security police know all about Lebuani's activities.

(Soundbite of oven beeping and dishes clattering)

AMOS: Over lunch with Dr. Lebuani's family, his wife, daughter, son and a few friends, he points out his paintings made while in prison. He says these images were his companions in his solitary cell. Some are of inmates he heard being tortured. He says there's only one way to stop the torture.

Dr. LEBUANI: We need democracy by any way. We need discussion. We need this. We need demonstration to invent political life. We need time. But if this regime refuses to bring us the freedom, we must lead by any way.

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AMOS: Dr. Lebuani points out that the trees in downtown Zabadani were planted by the French when Syria was a colony, and added like it was a joke, `This regime never planted anything. It just cut down trees and people.' Deborah Amos, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.