Cartoonist Ali Ferzat wins Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought

Ali Ferzat at the drawing board (Associated Press)

Still recovering from violent intimidation in August by men either employed by or at least supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was informed last week he would be awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, along with four other members of Arab Spring, a revolutionary movement spreading through multiple countries of the Middle East and the Arab world. It is the first time someone from the world of comics* has won this award, which was started in 1988 by the European Parliament to honor those who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought. The first recipient was the legendary activist Nelson Mandela. The award, which includes 50,000 Euros, will be given on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2011. The organization released the following statement about their selection of Ferzat:

Mr Farzat, a political satirist, is a well-known critic of the Syrian regime and its leader President Bashar al-Assad. Mr Farzat became more straightforward in his cartoons when the March 2011 uprisings began. His caricatures ridiculing Bashar al-Assad’s rule helped to inspire revolt in Syria. In August 2011, the Syrian security forces beat him badly, breaking both his hands as “a warning”, and confiscated his drawings.

The Agence France-Presse spoke with Ferzat about receiving the award. His statement was published in The Daily Star of Lebanon:

“I share this award with all who are deprived of freedom and democracy,” said Farzat, who spoke with AFP by telephone from Kuwait, adding that the prize “spreads hope for the future.”

“Freedom is a message that crosses generations. I dedicate this award to all the martyrs who gave their life for freedom and who have learned the culture of liberty,” he added.

“I salute them, as well as those who take to the streets, everywhere in the world, searching for freedom, democracy and dignity,” the cartoonist continued.

(Ali Ferzat)

Syria has been in the midst of an uprising since March, with protesters demanding the resignation of President al-Assad and the adoption of more political and personal freedoms. It is estimated over 3,000 civilians have been killed with over 30,000 arrested by al-Assad’s forces so far.

(via The Comics Reporter, who relentlessly covers this and other international political cartoons issues)

(*Since most political cartoons are single-panel, and thus sequential-less, some don’t consider them true comics. I’m kind of torn on the matter, but Ferzat’s story and efforts are too significant to get hung up on semantics.)

Comics Intimidate Syrian President

Ali Ferzat: down but not out

It may seem like a cushy job to draw cartoon characters all day long, but in some places it’s dangerous.

In Syria last Thursday, popular political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped and beaten by four or five men believed to be from President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, according to The Guardian. Two of Ferzat’s fingers on his left hand and his right arm were broken and his left eye was damaged in the early morning encounter. The attackers specifically told Ferzat “this is just a warning” and that he shouldn’t satirize Syria’s leaders. He was left on the side of a road bloodied and bruised with a bag over his head. According to AFP and Al Jazeera, Syrian police forces are currently searching for the suspects.

Assad has been the subject of increasing international pressure due to his handling of heightened protests against his increasingly oppressive regime. Over 2,500 Syrian citizens have been killed by Assad’s security forces. Ferzat, who once considered Assad a friend and supported his election in 2000, has become an outspoken critic. He has focused his work on covering the uprising that began in earnest this past March.

Ferzat, now 60 years old, began his career in the ’70s and has gained international acclaim, particularly in Germany, France and the Netherlands, as well as throughout the Middle East, where he is considered one of the most famous cultural figures of the Arab world. No stranger to controversy, Ferzat received a death threat from none other than Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, because of a 1989 exhibition of his work in Paris. Ferzat has also won recognition for his years as a human rights activist.

Ferzat is not the first Syrian celebrity to get such treatment. In July, the composer Ibrahim al-Qashoush, who wrote a popular song against Assad’s regime, was found dead with his vocal chords forcibly removed. Several other Syrian writers and actors have been arrested in recent weeks. But Ferzat’s international reputation helped increase the reach of the story, which was specifically referenced in a statement from the US State Department criticizing Assad’s regime:

“The regime’s thugs focused their attention on Ferzat’s hands, beating them furiously and breaking one of them, a clear message that he should stop drawing.”

“We demand that the Assad regime immediately stop its campaign of terror through torture, illegal imprisonment and murder.”

Ferzat’s fans as well as the political cartoon community and the larger comics community have come together in support of Ferzat. A Facebook event page called We Are All Ali Ferzat was quickly set up soon after the incident. It currently has over 8,000 supporters. The Washington Post‘s Michael Cavna issued a call to arms to all cartoonists, and one of the responses was the One Thousand Ferzats Tumblr page, a growing collection of political cartoons in support of Ferzat and criticizing Assad. The above image quickly circulated with the belief that it was a self-portrait by Ferzat. That has mostly been dismissed as a rumor but the actual artist is unknown. Below is thought to be Ali Ferzat’s last published cartoon before he was attacked. At this time, it is unknown whether Ferzat will be able to draw again.

While the incident is a shocking and disgusting display of abused power, it’s also a reminder that comics and art are still powerful and inspiring. The editorial cartoons Ferzat has been publishing on his website (naturally, Syria has been banning his work in their state run newspapers for a while now) have been like a rallying cry to the protesters in Syria. And that power is a huge threat to a ruling force facing calls for resignation both domestically and internationally.

So to summarize: comics are hardcore.

Ali Ferzat's last cartoon before the attack