20 - 26 June 2002
Issue No. 591
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
A dam shameThe tragic collapse of the Zayzoun Dam appears to have injected Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's reform campaign with a renewed sense of purpose. Sami Moubayed reports from Damascus
The collapse of the Zayzoun Dam in Syria's Hama province earlier this month poured forth devastation when the ensuing flood hit five villages, killing 22 people and destroying 8,000 hectares of farmland. Turkey, too, which borders Syria, saw a portion of its territories flooded owing to the collapse.
The dam, which was built in 1996, was the fourth largest in Syria, with a capacity of seventy million cubic metres of water. The catastrophe appears to have encouraged Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad to step up the anti- corruption campaign that had begun during his father's lifetime in 2000. Since the dam tragedy, 40 officials have been arrested while hundreds of engineers have been summoned for questioning.
But the series of arrests, is only the beginning, officials close to the president say, explaining that investigations will include people involved in the authorisation, construction and maintenance of the dam.
The director of the Zayzoun Dam, Hassan Alloush has been in hiding since 4 June. It has been reported that six weeks before the dam collapsed, the Ministry of Irrigation had sent Alloush an evaluation of the dam, which said that the structure needed extensive repairs. Alloush allegedly ignored the report.
A similar report was made by Michael Issa, the director of the geotechnical engineering department at Damascus University, who sent it to Alloush and Taha Al-Attrash, the former Minister of Irrigation. Dated 11 February 2002, the report claimed that the Zayzoun Dam was on the verge of collapse. That report, too, was ignored. The matter was also raised by Hussein Asho, a journalist at the state-run daily Al-Ba'ath, when he broached the matter of the dam's cracks. Asho's editors responded by transferring him from Damascus to Homs.
Issa's February report pointed out that 31 other dams in Syria needed immediate repair. Issa asked that a professional committee be formed from Damascus University staff to conduct renovation for the dam, but his proposal was turned down.
Issa had brought the matter to the attention of then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Al-Zoubi in 1999 and suggested a similar plan of action, however Al-Zoubi did not take up the proposal. One year later, in March 2000, Al-Zoubi was removed from office on charges of corruption, only to commit suicide in May 2000 to avoid standing trial. Meanwhile, speculation is rife that Al-Zoubi received bribes in connection with the construction of the $90-million dam.
When the younger Al-Assad came to power in 2000, the political pledge most often associated with him was cracking down on corruption. Since then, scores of petty officials have been arrested, and two former ministers under the senior Al-Assad have been sentenced to long prison terms.
Although some officials speculated that the campaign would abate after Al-Assad established himself as president, the anti- corruption drive has proceeded since the summer of 2000 when the younger Al-Assad took power.
Other highlights of the campaign include the rescinding of the parliamentary immunity of three MPs, all of whom were members of the ruling Ba'ath Party and their subsequent trials on corruption charges.
In April 2002, the president ordered the arrest of two senior officials at the ministries of economy and transport as well as the sacking and questioning of Mahmoud Misqal, director of Syria's Commercial Bank, on charges of misuse of public office and squandering public funds.
Also this spring, 23 employees of the Department of Police were fired, while 15 were sacked from the Ministry of Transport. Among those let go at the Transport Ministry were the director of transport in the northern city of Idlib, Asa'ad Al-Asa'ad, on charges of gross corruption, and the director of Syrian Airways, Adnan Shuja'.
The media, too, has not been exempt from the rash of firings, as shown by the sacking of Ali Abdel-Karim, the director of the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
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