DAMASCUS, Syria—Sheik Mohammed Khaznawi, one of Syria's most prominent Kurdish activists, had become so concerned about the plainclothes intelligence agents who shadowed his every move that he began to call his sons every half-hour, just to let them know he hadn't been arrested.
When he didn't check in on May 10, his sons feared the worst. They were right.
Three weeks later, Khaznawi's body turned up in a shallow grave near the Turkish border—bruised, with broken teeth and a dislodged nose. The authorities didn't allow an autopsy, so the cause of death is unknown.
The Syrian government blamed Khaznawi's killing on a criminal gang, and quickly produced two suspects whose confessions aired on national television.
But to Syria's 1.7 million Kurds, the country's largest minority and an important component of the opposition to President Bashar Assad, Khaznawi's murder was no whodunit. In massive protests that Syrian authorities quashed, Kurds accused the government of silencing one of their most vocal advocates.
"One of the security reports against him called him a symbol of unrest that needed to be removed," said Mourad Khaznawi, the sheik's oldest son. "These `suspects' are security agents, working for the government."
Khaznawi's death was the latest spark in the incendiary relationship between the Syrian government and the nation's Kurds, who for decades have been denied political participation and cultural expression.
Emboldened by the rise of Kurdish leaders in neighboring Iraq, where the president is Kurdish, Syrian Kurds say they'll no longer stay silent in the face of governmental transgressions against their community.
"The sheik's death made us want to explode," said Feisal Badr, a Damascus-based leader of the Kurdish Yekiti party, which operates underground because it's banned in Syria. "It made us realize how very deep our oppression is."
A report that the Human Rights Association in Syria issued in 2003 detailed the "gross denials" of most basic rights to Kurds, especially the estimated 300,000 who are effectively stateless because the Syrian government refuses to recognize them as citizens. The Syrian government puts the number of stateless Kurds at about 150,000, but there hasn't been a reliable census in years.
Kurds without Syrian nationality can't vote, travel outside the country, own property or hold government jobs. Many are refused treatment in public hospitals, attorneys and human rights activists say, forcing them to use expensive private clinics.
Khaznawi had angered the regime by playing host to foreign diplomats in the mostly Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. Many here say the sheik's fate was sealed in February, when he traveled to Belgium and met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that's the archenemy of the Syrian regime. He'd been working to bring Islamists and secular dissidents together for a unified opposition front.
Fayez al-Sayegh, the editor of the state-run newspaper Al Thawra, said Kurds were just using the sheik's death to air their oft-repeated demands and were ignoring evidence that Islamic militants targeted Khaznawi because of his tirades against extremism. One of the sheik's last sermons condemned suicide bombings as a means of resistance.
"There were confessions. There was evidence. That's it," al-Sayegh said, displaying the photos his paper ran of the suspects. "We lost a good sheik, a peaceful man. He was conveying positive messages that the government supported."
The Damascus regime, under international scrutiny and feeling the pressure of Kurdish power in Iraq, has promised a solution to "the Kurdish problem." The regime "is scared of the Kurdish movement now," said Syrian lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, who represents 110 jailed Kurdish dissidents.
But he and other observers were disappointed this month when the ruling Baath Party's national conference ended with no definite measures for stateless Kurds and no solid plans for expanding Kurdish rights.
"A certain number of them are going to have the Syrian nationality, but are we hearing something specific? No," said Riad al-Daoudi, an adviser to the foreign affairs minister. "It's a very volatile situation that could go in any direction."
In a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood of the Syrian capital, residents said they'd noticed small improvements to their lives in the past two years. They're now able to assert their identity with Kurdish music blaring from car stereos and Kurdish-language signs on storefronts. And there's less governmental interference when they celebrate cultural holidays.
But these small victories are a long way from ending what they described as four decades of oppression.
"We're foreigners here. I work hard at my studies, but for what? I'm not going to find a job," said Hindareen Abdulrahman, 18, a stateless Kurd who spoke to a reporter even after her mother warned her not to criticize the government in public. "Look at Sheik Khaznawi, who was killed for asking for the rights of the Kurdish people. If he can be assassinated, what about me?"
Syria's population is roughly 16.3 million: 89 percent Arab-Syrian and Aramean-Syrian, 9 percent Kurds, and 2 percent Armenian and others, including Jews. Most Kurds live in the Jazira region of northeast Syria, though there are large Kurdish communities in the major cities.
Sources: State Department Background Notes, CIA Factbook, World Almanac, Amnesty International
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SYRIA-KURDS
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050216 Kurds background
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