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The Savagery in Syria; Syrian Anchorwoman Defects From Regime; Iraqi VP's Case Further Inflames Sectarian Divide in Iraq

Aired September 17, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

For a year-and-a-half now, the unstoppable savagery in Syria has outraged and paralyzed the world. Syrians themselves, watching state television, have been told that there's no uprising in their country. They've been told that the violence is a terrorist conspiracy against their leader, Bashar al-Assad.

We've been hearing that now from the Syrian government for more than a year and a half and many of those reports have come from anchorwoman Ola Abbas, who for years has been a familiar face and voice in the government- controlled Syrian media.

Then this summer, Abbas posted this message to YouTube.


OLA ABBAS, SYRIAN NEWS ANCHORWOMAN (through translator): My dear people of Syria, since the regime unleashed its first attack against this land, we have been one. And we share the same dreams of a free, fair (ph) and independent Syria. Liberate yourselves from the (inaudible) of oppression and victimization.


AMANPOUR: And with that, Ola Abbas quit the regime and joined the revolution. She'd had enough of the lies, she said, enough of the bloodshed. She defected from Syria, leaving behind her fiance and her family. After more than 20,000 deaths, unabated violence and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives, Abbas said she could no longer lie to her listeners.

I spoke to her from Paris, which is her new home for now.


AMANPOUR: Ola, for more than ten years you were the voice and the face of the Syrian state. What finally caused you to say I cannot take it any more? What caused you to crack?

ABBAS (through translator): I regret that I did not have the courage to make the decision to defect in the beginning of the revolution. I came in late. The reason I didn't defect is fear. That's why I didn't defect earlier.

What made me finally defect is my responsibility as a person. Being a Syrian citizen and witnessing how the regime was slaughtering innocent people and bombing civilians in towns and villages with planes and mortars.

Being a journalist, being in the media, I'd be a partner in this bloodshed if I stayed in my position.

AMANPOUR: Tell me what it was like being on radio or on television during the uprising when you knew what was going on. Were you able to say there were demonstrations, there was an uprising? What was it like being the voice of the regime?

ABBAS (through translator): I remember in the third month of the revolution, I read a news brief on the radio. And it was the first time they reported that people were starting to gather. And I thought that was kind of a step forward.

For three months there was no mention of what was going on the streets of Syria, even though there were a lot of innocent martyrs. The Syrian media was schizophrenic about what was actually happening with the regime and the president Bashar al-Assad.

AMANPOUR: Were there words that were banned, that you were prevented from using? And were there words that you were told to use to describe what was happening?

ABBAS (through translator): Of course, of course. Definitely. There were words, which I like call keywords. These words, like the word "demonstration," were prohibited. "Revolution" was prohibited. "Demonstrators" were prohibited. When we used the word "conspiracy," we were referring to the conspiracy against the regime and against Syria.

We used to refer to demonstrators as terrorist or armed gangs or insurgents.

AMANPOUR: Ola, how did you feel having to repeat those words? How could you even go to work every day for so long?

ABBAS: There were a lot of meetings where bosses gave us instruction. The minister of information would meet either daily or weekly with the managers on how they would report the news. Everyone was under the control of the Syrian intelligence and security forces.

As for my feelings, I was in pain. Truthfully, I was suffering. I felt guilty. I felt like I was in a complex collaborating with the regime in the slaughtering of the Syrians. I didn't feel like myself. I felt like a murderer. I felt exactly like a murderer.

AMANPOUR: You felt like you were a murderer?

ABBAS: Yes. When I spoke about the armed gangs, the gangs who are killing the innocent civilians and said that those who were being killed are terrorists, who I knew were peaceful, who I knew that they were actually carrying actually roses, not arms. Doesn't that mean I'm a murderer?

To me, anyone who worked for the Syrian media is a murderer. When you tell lies for Bashar al-Assad in support of slaughtering civilians, then you're using the media to kill the Syrians.

AMANPOUR: That's very strong stuff that you're saying. How was it with your own family when you decided to leave? Because your family, you're Alawites and you are part of Bashar al-Assad's sect. Who did you leave behind and how did your family react?

ABBAS (through translator): My family did not know until after I left. I have a problem with my mother, because my mother supports Bashar al-Assad. She's a poet and she's also the vice president of the Arab Writers' Union, and she supports Bashar al-Assad.

And she is convinced that all this is a conspiracy, so my family does not know anything until after my defection and I am not in contact with them.

AMANPOUR: How do you think this will end, this uprising?

ABBAS (through translator): This revolution is not going to end, which means that the revolution has started. We will continue even after Bashar al-Assad leaves. This is the revolution against oppression.

The revolution will continue. But the revolution against Bashar al- Assad is going to end with the victory of the people. History is in our favor. The regime is going to be toppled. It's going to take longer, because America and the Western world are not doing anything.

And I ask the American people to pressure the administration to take a serious and firm stance and not be a partner in the killing of the Syrian children. But the revolution against Bashar al-Assad will end eventually because humanitarian reason and logic say that the regime will be toppled because murderers cannot prevail.

AMANPOUR: Ola Abbas, thank you for joining me from Paris.

ABBAS (through translator): Thank you. And I'd like to say one last time that the international community needs to stop repeating these empty words and needs to join us, the peaceful rebels, who have started to take action. Because the truth is, if you stay silent, you are taking part in the killing.

I'm relaying the plight of the Syrian people from inside. Your silence killed us. And I'm talking about the Western world, but also specifically America as a superpower. America has the responsibility to humanity to stand up for Syria and to support the rebels to get rid of the killer, Bashar al-Assad, because the revolution in Syria is a revolution for the people, democracy and freedom.

America always talks about freedom. If America really believes in freedom, we, the Syrians, are waiting.

The children of the Syrians are waiting for America to take a stand with the rebels. Your silence is killing our children. Your silence is killing our children.

AMANPOUR: Ola Abbas, thank you so much for joining me from Paris.

ABBAS (through translator): Thank you.


AMANPOUR: One of the tragedies of the inaction is that, in fact, some of the rebels have been infiltrated. There are militants coming in and getting involved in this fight against Bashar al-Assad.

U.S. intelligence have told us that elements are coming in from Iraq, Syria's neighbor, and that country has been experiencing a new wave of violence with bombings and insurgent attacks that have left at least 100 dead.

The clash between Sunnis and Shiites also played out in an Iraqi courtroom where Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was convicted of murder. He joins us from his safe haven in Turkey to plead his case, when we return.

But first, again from Syria, here's a brief, dramatic story in pictures.

In Aleppo, site and scene of the latest battles, a small group of rebels have been cleaning up their turf on a narrow street. Suddenly, they get word that a government tank is approaching. They drop their mops and grab their weapons.

But before they have time to take cover, the tank fires. The street is filled with smoke and when it clears, only one of the rebels survives, sitting there with his cleaning utensils. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and turning now to Iraq, where, as we said, 100 people were killed in just one day last week. But hundreds more have died in a series of massive attacks since July.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Nine years after the American invasion, after democratic elections, these sectarian tensions remain.


AMANPOUR: And adding fuel to this fire there are bitter political divisions between Iraq Sunnis and Shiites at the top levels of leadership. And last week, Iraq's vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for what the government claims was a series of political murders.

Al-Hashemi fled to Turkey after charges were brought against him and he was tried in absentia. His case further inflames the sectarian divide in Iraq. Al-Hashemi is a Sunni. Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, is a Shiite.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Al-Hashimi, thank you for joining me from Istanbul. Tell me first what is your reaction to being tried and convicted and sentenced to death in absentia?

TARIQ AL-HASHIMI, IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT: I caution that this verdict is, in fact, void, illegal and injustice. First of all, the crime court is not specialized to look into an accusation addressed to a sovereignty politician in the government as per article number 93.

I've been immune against any sort of accusation. Such accusation should be addressed to the supreme court and not to the crime court. This is one.

Second, according to article number 95, the Iraqi law prohibits - the constitution prohibits any sort of special court. The central crime court which looked into my case is illegal because it is considered a specialized court.

AMANPOUR: You don't seem to be disputing the charges against you, then. We have a statement from the government of Prime Minister Maliki, who says "he's connected directly to groups who've killed, assassinated and performed terrorism.

There are many witnesses who gave the testimony to nine high judges well known for their good reputation and performance, who finally found him guilty."

You're just complaining about the process. You're not denying the charges. You're sentenced to death for murder.

AL-HASHIMI: Well, it's quite, quite unbelievable that the prime minister, who is my political opponent, get directly involved in my - in my legal case. Such accusation, such statements should be issued by the judges and not by the prime minister.

This is a fresh indication as how my case is politically motivated.

AMANPOUR: Did you commit those crimes?

AL-HASHIMI: No way. No way. I've been victimized in 2006. My three siblings, two brothers and one sister, one sister's been assassinated. And I am sure that these assassinations were politically motivated. I know somebody who is now in the government, somebody who is in the political process were behind these assassinations.

I personally been victimized by terrorism in 2006. And I just kept silent and patient, because Nouri al-Maliki caved to all these cases for unknown assassinators. And I complied with and kept silent.

After five years, I have been now becoming part of terrorism, part of violence and killing various people whom I have no idea about? I never connected. I don't have an interest or even any difficulties or any problems with them.

What was the motives behind killing an Iraqi judge? Or a lawyer? Or a general manager in the government? What was the motive for vice president? If I do have such motives, I should, first of all, in fact, exercise this motive in revenge in killing those who killed my family members.

But I have done, I didn't, because I don't have such motives. I, from day one, when I was a general -- military secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, I opted for peaceful political process.

AMANPOUR: What is going on in Iraq right now? There's been a huge spate of killings. It looks like al Qaeda is coming back. The country is in a state of siege. Why is that happening right now?

AL-HASHIMI: Well, ask - this is just part of the complete failure of al-Maliki government. He is not delivering anything, in fact. The United Nations considered Iraq as a failure state. We do have a failure economy. We are not delivering services.

We do have a fragile security, a fragile political process. And systematic interrupting (ph) from those bringing (ph) real democracy to restoring some sort of autocratic regime.

This is what happened in my country. I raised my voice loudly. And this is the cost which I have paid.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about some of the alliances that seem to be shaping up. When you escaped Baghdad, you went into Erbil, and you were sheltered by the Kurds.

Are you supporting the Kurds in their desire for more autonomy for independence?

AL-HASHIMI: No, that's not - this is not the case, my dear - my dear friend.

AMANPOUR: The United States has left and there seems to be a huge amount of violence that's happening and that's happening right now.

Does the U.S. have any influence in Iraq?

What can the U.S. do in Iraq?

AL-HASHIMI: Well, I think this question should be tabled to the White House and the State Department.

AMANPOUR: From your point of view --


AL-HASHIMI: But I'm really --

AMANPOUR: -- as an Iraqi.

AL-HASHIMI: -- really frustrated and -- you could ask me about what was expecting what sort of delivery. The United States is in a position to help Iraqis.

I am -- I am -- I am really frustrated and disappointed, for the American administration managed to turn their eyes blind on the disastrous policy of Nouri al-Maliki, which, at the end of the day, reached my country to a crossroads to what the United Nations described Iraq as a state of failure.

The United States is still committed to show the responsibilities, help reach out Iraqis, helping them to challenge tremendous and huge challenges that we are escapiating (ph). On top of them, they're unnecessary and any president that has influence of our neighboring country in Iran, which makes our mission in moving and building the democracies very, very difficult.

The United States is still in a position to help Iraqis in various actions, in various aspects, taking into consideration that the framework of agreement is compulsory and the United States is still committed to serve Iraqis. But I am really -- I can't see any sort of involvement and engagement so far.

Therefore, through this program, I am insisting that the Americans should justify the American blood, the American taxpayer money to help Iraqis to build a real democratic state in the Middle East.

AMANPOUR: Do you think there's any hope for real reconciliation between the major parties, the Shiites and the Sunnis, in Iraq?

And, of course, quite a few Sunnis do support Mr. Maliki, even though you have problems with him.

AL-HASHIMI: There is always, in fact, the hope. There is always a chance for reconciliation and a successful result for an exit for the political impulse, provided that al-Maliki should take his stick and walk out.

Al-Maliki becoming part of problem and not part of the solution.

After he -- there is a possibility for voter confidence. I think the Kurdish, the Iraqi block and the federalists should join forces against and meet urgently in Irbil to revise what happened in the past few weeks, in order to reactivate the (inaudible) -- the vote for no confidence against al-Maliki, because there is only -- there is only the solution which has been left on the table without which, I think, we are going to move from one crisis to another bigger crisis. And there will be no solution whatsoever.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Hashimi, lastly, the Iraqi government has said that you should present yourself for retrial. You'll be guaranteed a fair trial.

Will you do that inside Iraq?

AL-HASHIMI: Well, I am ready, in fact. I am ready any time. If the -- I lost hope with the judicial system of Iraq. But I am addressing my case to international community, to United Nations, to human rights NGOs, in fact, to assist me, to establish or to ensure a fair trial. Then Tariq al-Hashimi will show up in the next day in Baghdad, in Kirkuk, in Kurdistan. I'm ready.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Tariq Hashimi, thank you very much for joining me.

AL-HASHIMI: You are most welcome.

Thank you very much.


AMANPOUR: So Hashimi, sentenced in absentia on very serious charges, and he himself launching very serious charges against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Of course, we are asking the government for an interview on this issue and on other important issues in Iraq.

Meantime, Hashimi has taken refuge in Turkey as we said and Iraq's -- it is Iraq's most important commercial trading partner. And now a spokesman for Iraq's Ministry of Trade tells us that they have decided to suspend all Turkish business licenses. We don't know -- the spokesman didn't say whether this is related to the Hashimi case. We'll be right back for the final thought after a break.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, in this often angry and anxious world of ours, the road ahead can sometimes look dark and very dangerous. But imagine a world where a road can actually lead to a whole new future.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): The new country of South Sudan, barely a year old, has just opened its first highway, 120 miles of road, linking the capital, Juba, to the Ugandan border. The war of independence there left the fledgling nation roughly the size of France with no infrastructure, a shattered economy and only 186 miles of paved roads.

Most people have to rely on dirt paths that become impassable in the rainy season. A few months ago, we met someone who once ran those dirt roads.

Guor Marial is a marathoner who fled his homeland during the Sudanese civil war and now lives in America. But he ran at the London Olympics, where he finished a surprisingly 47th place, beating half the field. Before the event, I asked him if his parents, back in South Sudan, would be able to see him run on television.


GUOR MARIAL, SOUTH SUDANESE OLYMPIC RUNNER: The village where they live, there's no electricity, no running water, not even a road where the car could go, where they live. It's very far away. It's about 30 to 40 kilometers from -- oh, no, 30 to 40 miles from where -- from the city. So --

AMANPOUR: So how will they get to the city?

MARIAL: They walk. Like right now, at the moment, it's the raining season. So there's no car going to take them from village to the city. So there will -- in order them to go to the city, they will walk.


AMANPOUR: A road, the sign of economic prosperity for people and a country and the people of South Sudan did celebrate Guor Marial's Olympic run and now, as we've said, they have even more to cheer.

Over the next 10 years, South Sudan plans to build 4,000 miles of new road, perhaps one of those new paved roads will connect Guor Marial's family to the capital and to the world beyond.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open - - Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.