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'One of Syria's bravest cartoonists' tortured to death in prison

Akram Raslan died shortly after secret police took him in 2012, but relatives have only now been able to confirm his killing
Akram Raslan before his arrest from his newspaper's offices in 2012 (Twitter/@RevolutionSyria)

Tributes have poured out for a Syrian political cartoonist who is believed to have died under torture in a government prison around a year after his arrest.

Akram Raslan, who was around 38 at the time of his disappearance, was killed in late 2013, but his family was only able to confirm his death this week, according to local reports.

Raslan, born in 1974 in Hama province, disappeared in October 2012 after he was reportedly arrested by officers from Syria’s much-feared intelligence service, or mukhabarat, from his office in the provincial capital.

In a statement released this week, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights said Raslan died of torture wounds soon after his 2012 detainment, citing an eyewitness who reportedly saw the artist in a hospital bed in Hama at the time.

He had been working for the state-owned newspaper al-Fidaa, but also published his cartoons on a number of Arabic news sites.

After the bloody events of the siege of Daraa in 2011, when government troops blockaded the restive southwestern town and killed hundreds of civilians, his cartoons became increasingly political.

By the time of his arrest, he had published over 300 cartoons critical of the Syrian government, variously portraying President Bashar al-Assad relaxing with his feet in a bloodbath, writing a tally chart of the dead in blood and sitting smiling on a heap of dead bodies.

The UN attempts to charge towards President Assad on a rocking horse, brandishing a bent sword (Twitter / @RevolutionSyria)

In one of the cartoons, Raslan drew a bloodied and bandaged man limping out of a Syrian prison, whose walls are bedecked with torture weapons.

With a prison guard standing behind him cackling, he tells a television reporter: “I have discovered that we are subject to an existential conspiracy led by outside parties…,” a reference to government claims that the uprising against Assad was led by a small group of foreign saboteurs.

A released detainee stands in front of a prison and describes the 'conspiracy' behind the Syrian revolution (Twitter / @ghaliakabbani)

The cartoon that finally led to his arrest, according to a eulogy by the Union of Syrian Journalists, showed Assad surrounded by flames, his body melting in the heat, holding up a placard bearing the words “Assad, or the country burns”.

Assad stands holding a sign reading 'Assad, or the country burns' (Twitter / @abdullnafia)

Raslan’s work criticising the government’s increasingly bloody crackdown on dissent earned him the 2013 Award for Courage from the Cartoonists’ Rights International Network.

Confirmation of his death spread through the cartooning community this week, with former colleagues celebrating his bravery.

One of Raslan’s colleagues, world-famous Syrian artist Ali Ferzat, paid tribute to the cartoonist on Monday.

“Akram Raslan is a martyr, and a witness to the fact that the regime and Islamic State are two sides of one axe: they both represent the death of art and of thought,” Ferzat wrote on his personal Facebook page.

A Palestinian artist who worked with Raslan in Syria, Fadi Abou Hassan, told the Cartoon Movement website that he had been “one of the bravest cartoonists” in the country.

“His works were known for being very direct in opposing the Syrian regime and its head [Bashar al-Assad],” Hassan wrote.

Another Palestinian cartoonist and former colleague of Raslan’s, Mohammad Sabaaneh, said: “He proved to the world that freedom is a very important value … [and he fought] for it even when the price was his blood.”