A decade ago, Syrian professor Zedoun al-Zoubi says he would have called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a “decent guy.”
That was before Al-Zoubi joined peaceful street protests in Damascus, and became one of the most outspoken activists in the Syrian capital.
That highly-visible role landed him in jail, twice.
After his first detention in December of 2012, his view of the Syrian president flipped.
“I would have never have thought a person who is a medicine doctor, a physician, who was educated in the west. … He understands what is democracy. He understands what is equal citizenship. Maybe he’s surrounded with a few guys from security and they are bad,” al-Zoubi says. “Now I realize this guy is criminal. End of story."
Al-Zoubi’s own prison stories are dire.
He was held in the notorious Damascus dentention center known as Building 215.
"This is not any usual place. This is hell. Literally,” al-Zoubi says. “I once called it the factory of madness and death. I used to see, every day, for 26 days, five to six people dying. Not because of torture in fact. It was just because of the conditions we were in … there was no oxygen. There is no food. There is no way to sleep.”
He saw a 3-year-old child jailed with his mother in one cell, and his father in another.
Al-Zoubi was released in January of 2013 as part of a prisoner exchange.
He returned to activism and was jailed again, in April of 2013. With the help of international contacts he again won his release. But this time authorities made sure he understood he was not welcome in his homeland.
“Immediately after my release I asked them, ‘I want to leave the country.’ They said we will allow you, but this is one permission. If you come back you will not be allowed to leave the country,” he says.
Al-Zoubi and his family escaped to Lebanon.
He’s now in Turkey.