Farajallah al-Hilu and Riyadh al-Turk On Dignity, Prisons and Loyalty

Youssef Abdelke (etching, 1985): “Mr Wajih Antaki and Sami Juma hang out in front of a vat of acid“

Mohammad Ali Atassi

Article orginally published in al-Quds al-‘Arabi on 28 February, 2024

Translated by Jens Hanssen on 23 April 2024

This is the story of two men, two cities and two countries brought together at one time and by one cause called freedom in the face of tyranny. It is a story about the beginnings of the establishment of security states that continue to flourish in our region till this day. It is therefore also a story about the birth of those who were determined to stand up to these tyrannical states, and have paid and continue to pay a heavy price for it.

This story is not about communism and its parties, not about the dictatorship of the proletariat and its outdated ideology, and not about liberalism and its advocates. It is a story of friendship and loyalty, of life and death, of dignity and  subjugation, of independence and dependence, of resilience and torture, of sacrifice and hope.

A year after the declaration of unity between Syria and Egypt on 22 February 1958, and with tensions rising between President Abdel Nasser and the Communists who rejected the merger, did not comply with the decision to dissolve the political parties and went underground, a young teacher, Said al-Droubi, was arrested on 14 February 1959 in the city of Homs. He was a member of the Teachers’ Union and the Homs branch of the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party. He was also a comrade and dear friend of Riad al-Turk, his fellow teacher and union member. On that fateful day, Said went to a party meeting in place of his friend who was in hiding, and was arrested instead.

The next day, Secret Police handed over Sa’id’s corpse to his family, claiming that he had committed suicide. The family opened the coffin in the house to discover that the body was charred, the abdomen swollen, and the body full of signs of brutal torture with electricity and cigarette butts. The bereaved mother stood on the balcony of her house next to the Serail in the centre of Homs, screaming and wailing. She begged passers-by to come up and see what they had done to her son. At that time, neither the city nor the country was yet familiar with the stories of torture killings at the hands of the nascent security state. People came up individually and in groups to console the family and to say goodbye to Sa’id al-Droubi, most of them looking away from the sight of the tortured corpse.

A huge funeral was held for Said al-Droubi, where his brutal murder under torture was denounced and where solidarity with his influential Homsi family was openly expressed. The funeral was attended by Homs’ rich and poor, left and right, students and colleagues of Said’s. The funeral procession stretched like a human torrent down Hamidiyeh Street in Homs’s city centre.

Riad al-Turk was assigned to deliver the speech of the Homs branch of the party during the burial ceremony. He hid in the cemetery waiting for the arrival of the funeral, where he came out and delivered the eulogy on Saeed’s grave, condemning tyranny and challenging the murderers, including Abdo al-Hakim, the head of intelligence in the city, and the interrogator Jawad Abara, who was directly responsible for Said’s murder. Riad al-Turk was then smuggled out of the cemetery by his comrades, who blocked the road and gave him access to the stairs of Bab Tadmur towards Bab al-Darib, ensuring that no one would follow him to arrest him.

Al-Turk remained in hiding in the city of Homs for several weeks, while the interrogators were desperately trying to arrest him. He had dared to give a eulogy at Sa’id al-Droubi’s funeral which – to boot – was published in the party’s newspaper al-Akhbar in Lebanon. In late April 1959, Farajallah al-Helou, the leader of the party in Lebanon, had him smuggled across the border to the Bekaa. Riad al-Turk spent about a month in the Lebanese capital staying with his brother, where he observed the dire conditions of Syrian refugees and fugitives, most of whom were waiting for travel, residency and scholarships in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Riad al-Turk asked the leadership of the Syrian-Lebanese Party, who were meeting with him anonymously in Beirut, to return him to Syria to continue his activities. His request was granted, but on the condition that he be returned to underground work in Damascus instead of Homs, fearing that he would be recognized and arrested in his home city.

The mysterious man and the rebuilding of the organization

On the day he was smuggled to Damascus, a Lebanese commander handed him false Lebanese identity papers. He was driven to the border area and told to cross a hill at dawn, go down to the Syrian town of Sarghaya, take a bus from the village square to Damascus, and make an appointment in the afternoon with the party official in Damascus at a stop called Ain al-Karsh on Baghdad Street. When al-Turk asked if the person waiting for him at the bus stop knew him, he was told, “Yes, he knows you and you know him.”

Riad al-Turk crossed the border surreptitiously and arrived in Damascus. He wandered around the streets of Damascus waiting for the time of the appointment, only to be surprised at five o’clock that the same Lebanese commander who gave him the forged identification papers in Beirut two days earlier was waiting for him in the heart of the Syrian capital. From there he was taken to a secret house in the Muhajireen neighbourhood, which had long served as a hiding place for Communist Party leaders. Khaled Bekdash, Secretary General of the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party, was originally meant to hide there, but for all the aura of reverence and glorification that surrounded him, Bekdash had retired from clandestine work on the ground, left for Lebanon and from there to Prague and Sofia, where he remained Honorary Secretary General of a Communist Party allied to Moscow.

Over a period of more than two months, this Lebanese commander of unknown identity visited Riad al-Turk in Damascus, weekly, sometimes two or three times a week, in this secret house, to instruct him how to reorganize the structure of the party and lead several teams of the communists remaining underground in the city. At the time most of the members of the Damascus Branch had been arrested. Some of them were taken out and smuggled to Beirut, because the head of the Damascus Branch, the Lebanese cadre Rafik Reda al-Fakhani, collapsed under torture and gave up the lists of the party members in Damascus after his interrogators threatened to harm his young pregnant wife whom they put under house arrest in Damascus.

During these weeks of clandestine work, the relationship between Riad al-Turk and the Lebanese commander was strengthened. This unknown and mysterious person with extraordinary clear-mindedness, dedication to work, depth of culture, and humility, left a deep impression on the young cadre from Homs. This commander prepared Riad al-Turk, strengthened him and fortified him psychologically, hoping that he would not weaken or have doubts if he heard his comrades in the party making confessions on the radio.

Enlightenment of the Communists

Soon, Radio Damascus began broadcasting daily the confessions of detainees who collapsed under the most severe forms of torture and physical and psychological pressure. Sami Jumaa, an officer in the Syrian Second Bureau – the feared military intelligence – in charge of interrogations, called this the “Communist Enlightenment Programme” in his memoirs. He wrote about that dark period in his book Papers from the Notebook of the Homeland, launched in 2002 with a ceremonial presentation by General Mustafa Tlass, Minister of Defence in Hafez al-Assad’s regime, with the following grim lines: “Finally, we reached the decisive stage. I asked those who were convinced of the error of their previous path and believed in Arab nationalism to announce on the radio their withdrawal from the Communist Party and their disavowal of communism, and 90 per cent of those in the unit (the “Taliani detachment”) expressed their immediate agreement. Mr Fuad Shehadeh from Syrian Radio began visiting my office every day to record their statements, which were broadcast every evening from Radio Damascus. The speaker would begin by introducing himself and the position he held in the Syrian Communist Party. He would then proceed to self-criticize his past political practices, and conclude by announcing his withdrawal from the Syrian Communist Party. As soon as his speech was broadcast on the radio, we would release him and work to return him to the job he had held in the state before his arrest, and for those who were unemployed, we would work hard to provide them with a job opportunity.”

As for the fate of the cadre Rafiq Reda al-Fakhani, Sami Jumaa wrote the following about him:

After Rafiq Reda handed us the entire secret apparatus in Damascus, and after I was sure that he had burnt all his bridges with communism and had left him only with us as a protector and patron, I resolved to reciprocate his action… After settling Rafiq Reda’s situation, I gave him the choice between going free where he wanted or working as an employee for us. He picked the latter option, and received a good salary and housing. He began working under my direct supervision to enlighten communists who were arrested and those whom we failed to persuade to abandon communism and withdraw from the party. Rafiq Rida was very successful in this regard, as all those he talked to were people he knew and those he had personally organized in the party. He thus relieved me of a large part of the burden I was carrying. Rafiq Reda remained in the intelligence service until his death in his mid-80s.

If Sami Jumaa’s memoirs can be trusted, and according to a simple calculation based on Sami Jumaa’s words, Rafiq Reda, who was around 60 years old at the time he turned collaborator and snitched on his comrades, then this means that he worked with the Syrian intelligence services until the mid-1980s, during the reign of Hafez al-Assad!

On 25 June 1959, an investigation unit led by Shaher Qwainati managed to arrest the secretary of the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party in Damascus, Farajallah al-Hilu, after he was discovered in one of the secret houses rented by the party member Subhi al-Hibal who was arrested a few days earlier. Farajallah al-Hilu, whose code name was Abu Fayyad and who possessed a Lebanese ID in the name of Assaf Mansour, was taken to the Taliani unit where Rafik Reda, officers Sami Juma, Abdel Wahab al-Khatib and interrogator Wahid Antalaki were waiting for him. Rafiq Rida immediately recognized Farajallah and demanded that he cooperate with the interrogators. According to Sami Jumaa’s memoirs Farajallah stood up, spat in the face of his former comrade and cursed him “traitor.”

Killed under torture and dissolved in acid

Farajallah al-Helou, who had a heart condition, was subjected to horrific torture: beatings, whippings, inflating the abdomen with a car pump, pressing on the abdomen with the foot to let the air out, electric shocks, sleep deprivation and continuous water drips on the head. The interrogators aimed to find out the names and hiding places of the rest of the secret cell. They also tried to find out the uses of the key ring he carried on him when he was arrested, whether it belonged to the secret houses he frequented in Damascus, and where they were located. al-Helou refused to cooperate with the torturers and answer any of their questions, and kept repeating the words “traitor” against Rafiq Rida until he died the next morning at the hands of his torturers.

When the details of the crime were brought to the attention of Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, Minister of the Interior in the Northern Provinceand Nasser’s strongman in Syria, he asked the interrogators to keep the matter secret and hide the body. The body was initially buried in the orchards of Ghouta, only to be exhumed a few days later and dissolved in a vat of acid to remove any evidence of the crime. At the time, Soviet-Egyptian relations were tense. On the one hand the Soviets had signed the High Dam Treaty with Nasser and the accepted to finance it: on the other Nasser faced escalating pro-Soviet media campaigns in the wake of Col. Abdul Karim Qassem’s anti-Nasser coup in Iraq while Arab communist parties vocally opposed Egyptian-Syrian unity.

On 4 July 1959, the Syrian-Lebanese Communist Party announced the news of the Syrian intelligence services’ kidnapping of Farajallah al-Helou in a front-page article of its Beirut-based newspaper al-Nidaa which held the authorities responsible for his personal safety and the need to protect his life. The Syrian authorities denied the news of al-Helou’s arrest, pointing out that the Syrian-Lebanese border records did not record his entry into Syria.

Meanwhile Riad al-Turk would wait for several weeks for the unknown Lebanese commander in his safe house in the Muhajireen neighbourhood. Only much later did he discover through a messenger in Beirut he sent to Homs, that this unknown person was Farajallah al-Helou, the leader of the party, and that he was arrested on 25 June by the Syrian intelligence services, and that he did not hand him over to his torturers, despite the passage of several weeks since his arrest.

Riad al-Turk was humbled by the magnitude of this leader’s selfless deed. He would never have imagined that this mysterious man, who seemed to wear a invisibility hat, crossed the border every week, fortify cadres, and raised morale at a time when most Syrian cadres had left the country to escape the oppression, and when Khaled Bekdash was living luxuriously in Eastern Europe, was none other than the leader of the Lebanese Communist Party.

Riad al-Turk continued to lead the clandestine work in Damascus for several months, before a meeting he attended was raided and he was arrested with his Lebanese identity papers. Riad al-Turk was also brutally tortured, losing hearing in one of his ears, during the interrogators’ attempt to identify his true identity and extract information about the underground party cells he was leading. al-Turk did not cave in. It was impossible for him to falter or surrender, with the example of Said al-Droubi and Farajallah al-Helou before his eyes. The interrogators even failed to extract his real name. Riad al-Turk was then transferred to Mezzeh prison, where he was shown to all Homsi detainees from the party, because his accent indicated that he was from Homs. It was only then that they realized that Riad al-Turk had finally fallen into their hands.

Tension with the Soviets and Heikal’s nonsense

An international campaign was launched to demand the truth about the fate of Farajallah al-Helou and Riad al-Turk as well as their release and the release of other communist detainees in Syria. In his book The Boiling Years, published in 1989, Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, the Egyptian journalist close to Nasser, recounted his version of the murder of Farajallah al-Helou, the near-death torture of Riad al-Turk, and their impact on Egyptian-Soviet relations at the time. Based Egyptian intelligence documents in his possession, Heikal claimed that Khrushchev stood at the May 1 celebrations in 1961 and spoke about “the fact that Arab communists, the real fighters for political and social independence, were being detained and imprisoned in the United Arab Republic.” Heikal added that the Pravda newspaper, which was a mouthpiece for the Soviet Communist Party, had published the story of Farajallah al-Helou’s murder. Heikal added that Pravda began to publish details of these atrocities, saying, and I am quoting here from Heikal’s book, that “a communist leader, Mr Farajallah al-Helou, was killed by impalement in Mezzeh prison in Damascus.” Heikal asserted that “Nasser sent a telegram to Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj asking about this issue, and the surprise was that al-Sarraj sent back from Damascus saying that the issue from beginning to end was fabricated because Farajallah al-Helou died in Beirut two years before Egyptian-Syrian unification. In fact, an extensive obituary of him had been published in the newspaper of the Lebanese Communist Party and an official statement on his death from the party was issued by the secretariat of the Lebanese Communist Party at the time. So, how does this fit with what was reported in Pravda on 9 May 1961?”

Heikal conceded that Pravda did not remain silent. It waited two days to announce that another communist leader, Mr Riad al-Turk, had been killed in the prisons of the United Arab Republic. According to Heikal, “Lebanese newspapers published photos and interviews with Riad al-Turk, which showed that he was still alive and kicking and still active in Beirut. However, the campaign did not stop, even though the Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister summoned the Soviet ambassador in Cairo and drew his attention to the fabrications of Pravda and later Radio Moscow.”

In a footnote on the same page – on page 552 – Heikal added that President Gamal Abdel Nasser called him that day and asked him to send a photo of Riad al-Turk to Pravda editor-in-chief Satikov who was friendly with Heikal.

As for the story of Riad al-Turk’s fake photos and the Nasserist newspapers’ claim that he was not dead and was still active in Beirut, Riad al-Turk personally told me the following: in an attempt to refute the news that Farajallah al-Helou and he had died in Syrian prisons, the interrogators took him from his prison to the Ministry of Culture offices one day. He entered a room behind a curtain. When the curtain was pulled he found himself facing photographers and journalists. He immediately told them that he was Riad al-Turk and did not want to make any statement because he was a political prisoner deprived of his rights. On that day, the intelligence services thought that by proving that Riad al-Turk was alive, they could kill two birds with one stone and cast doubt on the news that Farajallah al-Helou had been killed.

Regardless of the extent of the inaccuracies and distortions in Heikal’s 1989 book and the quotes from the Egyptian intelligence archives, no one was fooled by the inventions of Syrian-Egyptian intelligence. The truth was fully revealed after the United Arab Republic broke up in 1961, and Riad al-Turk emerged alive from Mezzeh prison and not from the streets of Beirut, bearing marks of torture on his body. Most of those involved in the murder of Farajallah al-Helou were arrested and referred to the Judicial Council, their confessions recorded, and judicial judgements issued against them.

The irony here is that Heikal, who was always busy rewriting history according to his whims, should have read the minutes of Judge Ahmed Zuhair al-Adli’s investigations, the list of indictment’s in the Judicial Council, the confessions and the verdicts issued on 30 May 1962, to spare himself and his pen such lies against Farajallah al-Helou and Riyadh al-Turk. To this day we do not know whether the Egyptians lied to the Russians, Heikal to his readers, the investigators to their superiors, the intelligence officers to their interior minister, or the minister to his big boss!

Of the thousands of communists who were arrested during that period, only about seventy detainees remained at the end of the unity era. They had refused to sign a pledge to withdraw from the party and abandon their political convictions. Riad al-Turk was one of them. He spent a year and four months in Mezzeh prison, and was released along with his other comrades after secession between Syria and Egypt on 28 September 1961.

Riad al-Turk went out to freedom, stronger and harder. He learnt from his experience with Farajallah al-Helou a profound lesson in life and loyalty. He owed him his life and a debt of the cause of freedom and dignity in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine – the main cause for which the Lebanese leader was martyred. Riad al-Turk went out to resume what Farajallah al-Helou had started with many of his comrades in Syria and Lebanon. They reviewed the positions of the communist parties: the Soviet acceptance of the partition of Palestine, independence from the Soviets, breaking with Bekdashism and the cult of personality, openness to the proposals of Arab nationalism, rehabilitating the issue of freedom and democracy in political life, and the priority of facing tyranny and its security state apparatus.

Riad al-Turk used to repeat to me whenever Farajallah al-Helou was mentioned that this leader is the martyr of the cause of freedom in our region, and that – in a way – he was fighting after his death the Assad dictatorship alongside the Syrian opposition. I used to love this metaphor, even if it seemed to come from the unseen world in the language of a militant who, after imprisonment by Abdel Nasser, spent eighteen years in the prisons of Assad Senior and two years in the prisons of Assad Junior.

I always try to find the meaning of al-Turk’s metaphor through important moments in my personal memory. For example that day in 2001, when the resistance fighter Suha Bishara, who had spent over a decade in Israeli prisons, went down to the sit-in with a group of Lebanese intellectuals and activists in the heart of Hamra Street in Beirut, at the height of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, to protest the re-arrest of Riad al-Turk by the Assad regime. Or like that fateful day when Samir Kassir was assassinated, and we all came out to his funeral calling for freedom for Lebanon and democracy in Syria. And most recently, the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, dismembered and lubricated with acid, like Farajallah al-Helou in 1959.

One day, Riad al-Turk’s metaphor became a reality. On that day in March 2011, thousands of Syrians shouted “death, not humiliation,” not out of love for death, but out of a yearning for life. On that day, I realized that people’s freedom cannot be dissolved in acid, and that a metaphor can become reality.

Cite this blog post
khatibsami (2024, April 23). Farajallah al-Hilu and Riyadh al-Turk On Dignity, Prisons and Loyalty. OIB_upclose. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w9g6

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