BEIRUT – A renowned political cartoonist whose drawings expressed Syrians’ frustrated hopes for change was grabbed after he left his studio early Thursday and beaten by masked gunmen who broke his hands and dumped him on a road outside Damascus.
One of Syria’s most famous artists, Ali Ferzat, 60, earned international recognition and the respect of many Arabs with stinging caricatures that infuriated dictators including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and, particularly in recent months, Syria’s autocratic Assad family.
He lay badly bruised in a hospital bed Thursday evening with his hands swathed in bandages, a stark reminder that no Syrian remains immune to a brutal crackdown on a five-month anti-government uprising.
Ferzat remembers the gunmen telling him that “this is just a warning,” as they beat him, a relative told the Associated Press.
“We will break your hands so that you’ll stop drawing,” the masked men said, according to the relative.
Before inheriting Syria’s presidency from his father in 2000, Bashar Assad, a British-trained eye doctor, used to visit Ferzat’s exhibitions and offer encouraging words, the artist has said.
When the new president opened Syria to reforms, Ferzat was allowed to publish the country’s first private newspaper in decades, a satirical weekly called The Lamplighter.
The paper was an instant hit. It was soon shut down, however, as Assad began cracking down on dissent and jailing critics.
Ferzat became a vehement critic of the regime, particularly after the military launched a brutal crackdown on the country’s protest movement.
An endearing figure with a bushy gray beard, Ferzat drew cartoons about the uprising that erupted in mid-March and posted the illustrations on his private website, providing comic relief to many Syrians who were unable to follow his work in local newspapers because of a ban on his drawings.
His illustrations grew bolder in recent months, with some of his cartoons directly criticizing Assad, even though caricatures of the president are forbidden in Syria.
This week, he published a cartoon showing Assad with a packed suitcase, frantically hitching a ride with a fleeing Gadhafi.
The response was swift.
Ferzat, who usually works late into the night, left his studio at 4 a.m. Thursday, but a jeep with tinted windows quickly cut him off, according to the relative. Four masked gunmen then dragged him out of his car, bundled him into the jeep and drove him to the airport road just outside Damascus, beating him and making threats all the while.
The men then singed the artist’s beard, put a bag over his head and dumped him on the side of the road.