F.B.I. probes suspected harassment of Syrians in the U.S.
A demonstration against the Syrian government in Los Angeles last month. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
July 21st, 2011
10:55 AM ET

F.B.I. probes suspected harassment of Syrians in the U.S.

As demonstrations in Syria against President Bashar al Assad continue, protests against the regime also are taking place in the United States, organized by Syrian-American and Syrian activists.

Some demonstrators claim that personnel from the Syrian embassy in Washington have been photographing them and using the photos to intimidate them, as well as harass their families in Syria.

The State Department also is taking those allegations seriously and confirms that it has seen reports that Syrian embassy officials are carrying out photo and video surveillance of protesters in the United States. The department says it is investigating reports that the Syrian government sought retribution against the demonstrators' families in Syria.

On July 6 the State Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell called in the Syrian ambassador, Imad Moustapha, to discuss reports that his staff was spying on peaceful demonstrators in the United States.

A law enforcement official tells CNN that FBI agents have been meeting with Syrian activists in the Washington area for the past several weeks. In those conversations, the official says, the FBI expressed concerns about the activists' safety and provided some suggestions on how to watch out for their safety.

The official would not confirm the names of the activists the FBI has met with, adding that, so far, they have not seen any evidence of a credible threat but are continuing to look into the matter.

The Syrian ambassador was out of the United States and not available for an interview with CNN. The press attache at the embassy also would not comment on the issue. A Syrian source with knowledge of the issue who spoke on background to CNN because of the sensitive nature of the matter would not confirm or deny that embassy staff were photographing demonstrators in the United States but questioned why they would do it.

The protests, he said, already are posted on YouTube and Facebook, available to anyone who wants to watch them, he noted. "Why would you need to use spies?" he asked skeptically.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington, tells CNN he was contacted by the FBI by phone after his friends contacted the Bureau, concerned that were receiving anonymous "threat calls."

"The FBI, they phoned me twice or three times. They need more information about what's going on the country, what kind of threat level here, and they have some concerns about the safety of Syrians here," he says.

Ziadeh says that, after one demonstration, he was invited to come to the Syrian embassy. "Someone from the embassy came to me and said that we would love actually to host you at the embassy and have some discussion with you," he says. "I went to the embassy and I (was) surprised that two persons inside the embassy taking pictures of me inside the embassy."

The activist says he believes the photos were passed on to Syrian intelligence in Damascus but admits he has no proof of that.

Ziadeh also says he has been receiving threats through his Facebook site and through e-mail "and sometimes through my phone, calls that (are) threatening my family in Damascus and my activity here."

Ziadeh calls the situation "very alarming."

"Always I have concern about my mother because sometimes she is hiding," he said. "My brothers, they cannot actually move very freely ...they arrest four of my cousins because they participate in demonstrations in Damascus and always they ask them questions about their relationship with me, if they are in communication with me here in Washington."

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