Maleh, Haytham al- (1931–)

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Maleh, Haytham al-

Haytham al-Maleh (Haitham al-Mala) is a Syrian lawyer and human rights advocate.


Born in Syria in 1931, little is publicly known about the early life of al-Maleh, which is not surprising for a human rights advocate in authoritarian Syria who has had to operate clandestinely for much of his activist career. A lawyer and former judge, al-Maleh began his human rights activities in 1978 by helping to form a human rights group within the official Syrian Bar Association. In early 1980, he and others carried out a one-day work stoppage as a protest against war. The regime of the ruling Ba'th Party, in power in Syria since 1963, imprisoned al-Maleh from 1980 until 1986.


Out of prison, al-Maleh went on to become one of Syria's most prominent human rights advocates, critical of the government and the emergency powers under which it has operated ever since the Ba'th Party took power. In July 2001, forty human rights advocates met at al-Maleh's office in Damascus and formed the Human Rights Association in Syria (HRAS). Al-Maleh was chosen to be its director. This bold step occurred during the relatively short liberalization felt in Syria after the death of the country's longtime leader, hafiz al-asad, in June 2000. However, Asad's son and successor, bashar al-asad, soon clamped down on the country much as his father had. In April 2002, the Damascus Lawyers Disciplinary Council disbarred al-Maleh for three months. This came after he complained about the lack of fairness of the trial of political prisoner Ma'mun al-Humsi, whom he had been defending. Shortly thereafter in June 2002, the Damascus Bar Association disbarred him for three years.

Al-Maleh soon faced more serious legal problems. In September 2002, when he was in Jordan seeking medical treatment, Syria's deputy military prosecutor filed charges against him for establishing a human rights organization without the approval of the ministry of social affairs and labor, and for distributing HRAS's magazine, Tayyarat (Currents), in the country without permission. A military court eventually tried him in July 2003, but he was pardoned four days after the trial began when the court ruled that a 9 July presidential decree from President Asad applied to his case. In December 2003 the government allowed al-Maleh, who had been subject to a ban on foreign travel, to leave for Germany, whereupon he delivered a speech on human rights in Syria before the Human Rights Committee of the German parliament. The following February, Syrian authorities prohibited him from leaving Syria for the United Arab Emirates, in an act that many believe stemmed from its displeasure over his speech in Germany.

During his own legal troubles, al-Maleh served as the lawyer in Syria for the high-profile case of Maher Arar. Arar was a Canadian Syrian who was seized by U.S. authorities at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York in September 2002 during a stopover on his flight from Tunisia to Canada, and forcibly flown to Syria. Arar was imprisoned and tortured there for nearly a year until his release and return to Canada in October 2003. The case developed into a major scandal in Canada after it was revealed that American authorities may have acted in response to information given to them by Canadian police officials to the effect that Arar had links to terrorism.

Al-Maleh has continued his human rights work in Syria despite both government harassment and his own advancing age. He was one of the signers of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change in October 2004. In May 2006, he was convicted for insulting the president and defaming military officials. The court sentenced him to only ten days' imprisonment based on his age and his profession as a lawyer, but he appealed the conviction. While the case was still on appeal, al-Maleh was granted presidential amnesty at the end of the year.


Al-Maleh's activities have been recognized around the world. He has received an award from the Egyptian Human Rights Association, and in March 2006, was awarded the Geuzen Medal by the Geuzen Resistance 1940–1945 Foundation in the Netherlands. However, a government-imposed travel ban prohibited him from traveling to receive it, so his sons Ilyas Maleh and Anas al-Maleh accepted it on his behalf.


Haytham al-Maleh will be remembered as a pioneer in the legal and human rights struggle against authoritarian rule in Syria.


Name: Haytham al-Maleh (Haitham al-Mala)

Birth: 1931, Syria

Family: Two sons, Ilyas Maleh and Anas

Nationality: Syrian


  • 1978: Helps form human rights group within Syrian Bar Association; participates in one-day work stoppage
  • 1980: Imprisoned
  • 1986: Released from prison
  • 2001: Helps form Human Rights Association in Syria; disbarred; tried for establishing a human rights organization and distributing its magazine without permission; pardoned
  • 2004: Signs Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change
  • 2006: Convicted of insulting the president and other charges; is pardoned without having served jail time


"Once-Jailed Syrian Father and Son Warn U.S. Attack Would Destroy 'Not Only the Regime but the Country Itself.'" Democracy Now. Updated 4 March 2005. Available from

                         Michael R. Fischbach