Firas Younes began his political activity at an early age in Syria. In 1978 at the age of 15 he joined the Communist Labor Party which was a Leftist opposition party.
“The Party’s fundamental concern was democracy,” says Firas, “we called on the government to lift the martial and emergency laws and demanding the release of political prisoners.”
Firas’s political career lasted only a few months before he was arrested in the summer of 1978 during his first year of study at the Faculty of Economics at Aleppo University. He spent a year and a half in prison, though Firas remembers it as a rich and formative experience. Prisoners were allowed to read, and Firas spent much of his time buried in books. He believes that this reading was instrumental in building a strong knowledge base, which allowed him to break free from the rigid Marxist indoctrination that had landed him in prison. This, in turn, opened the door to learning about different political and religious beliefs and Firas became interested in historical and anthropological studies. Whilst in prison, he encountered many Syrians, from various different walks of life with a wide range of political, social and nationalist beliefs.
After he was released, Syria witnessed a period of political turmoil, with protests and sit-ins taking place at Aleppo University. The beginning of the 1980’s also marked the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood, who used military tactics to express their opposition to the regime.
Firas recalls how the Communist Labor Party at the time offered a more balanced platform compared to the other two options facing voters. They positioned themselves against both the existing regime’s dictatorial tyranny and, against the hardline religious and economic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood. The party managed to succeed in capturing a few more supporters using this approach, despite the regime’s repressive crackdowns.
Firas was arrested for the second time at the end of 1981, and he remained behind bars for fifteen years. His imprisonment was spent between Aleppo Central Prison and Adra Prison in rural Damascus. Firas finally ended up being held in the infamous Tadmor Military Prison.
“The ten months we spent at Tadmor Military Prison,” says Firas, “were equal to all the years we’d previously spent in the city prisons. Or perhaps they in fact surpass them in terms of pain, torture and the erosion of every human dignity.”
During his long period of detention, Firas followed up on all the political changes that were taking place in Eastern Europe, on the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, vainly hoping that these transformations might change something for him; that they might somehow have ramifications that would reach all the way into his prison cell.
Firas describes this second period of detention as a long adventure, and says that his time in the city prisons was in fact quite enriching, as inmates were allowed to read books and play sports.
During his detention at Aleppo Prison, twenty-six male and female members of his Party were arrested. The women were later released, while the men remained behind bars. The scale of arrests escalated and security forces captured anyone they suspected of having ties to Firas and his Party. Among those detained were Khalid Rashid, Jamal Eddine Kalo and Omar Fawzi Bakr, who had no formal ties to the Party though they did in principle support its liberal ideals. They refused to cooperate with the authorities and eventually died in prison, either due to disease or due to the circumstances of their arrest.
Firas remembers the violence that broke out in Aleppo Prison on March 10, 1986, when two prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood, (who had cooperated with the authorities and had been promised release two days prior) managed to stage a revolt because their release had been delayed. A prison guard was stabbed and weapons were seized by the prisoners. They threatened the lives of everyone in the prison, including both the jailers and inmates, and made a point of singling out those who identified as Communists. Firas and his companions took shelter inside their cell for hours, until a commando team broke in under personal orders from President Hafez al-Assad, quashing the revolt by opening fire..
On December 25, 1991, a large number of political prisoners were released, but Firas was not among them. Instead, he was transferred to Saydnaya Prison, spending a few months there before being moved again, this time to Adra Prison. Firas describes the conditions at Adra as better than what he’d experienced before, as prisoners had beds and access to televisions, multiple outdoor courtyards and over 15,000 books at the prison library. However pens and writing were not allowed. Thanks to the corruption of some of the Prison staff, or their membership of a particular political party and ties to party leadership, several inmates including Firas managed to get their hands on prohibited materials, including Party newspapers.
The charges leveled against Firas were numerous, including belonging to a secret organization and working against the aims of the revolution. Several lawyers volunteered to defend him and his comrades, but Firas asked them to step down, wishing instead to establish the unconstitutional nature of the trial and the failure to fulfill the legal conditions required to mount it. Firas aimed to undermine the value of the entire case against him and the Party, both from a constitutional and legal standpoint. Firas presented his arguments in writing, passing copies to the lawyers with the aim of having them disseminated through international and human rights organizations.
A verdict was finally issued and Firas was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He had already served thirteen years at the time, and had received word that he was supposed to have been sentenced to death, but that this directive had gone unheeded due the inability of the prosecutor to prove the charges being made.
Firas was released in 1996, leaving Adra prison and heading to Aleppo. “When I arrived in Aleppo, it was raining,” he said. “I walked under the rain for the first time in fifteen years, finally realizing a long-held dream. Many of my relatives and friends came to welcome me, as well as families of some prisoners. I remember I couldn’t sleep for three days straight I was so wound up.”
After his release, Firas learned that the regime had entirely done away with the Communist Labor Party. All that was left of it was a handful of comrades, some of whom had left for Europe, while the ones that remained were in a state of organizational stasis, according to Firas.
After the year 2000, Firas recalls that political rhetoric and crackdowns became much more violent. Fearing arrest, his Party limited their activities to publishing their newspaper and maintaining some organizational ties, though the security apparatus never stopped questioning them or singling members out to warn them to tone down their speech.
In 2003, there were some attempts to revive the Party under the same name, and they published the Party newspaper under a new title; “Al-Aan” (Now), replacing the old one, “Al-Raya al-Hamraa” (the Red Banner). Firas became active in the Party once more, writing articles and editorials.
The Party was one of the signatories to the Damascus Declaration in 2005, and worked for a time with the National Council in 2007—which used to meet at the home of opposition member Riad Seif—before internal divisions led to a freeze on cooperating with Council and the Party’s eventual resignation.