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Plea from parents of missing American in Syria

December 14th, 2012
12:04 PM ET

By Claire Calzonetti, Samuel Burke & Mick Krever CNN

“I don’t have a death wish; I have a life wish,” Austin Tice wrote after his third month in Syria, working as a freelance journalist. “Coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the greatest feeling of my life.”

That was in July. A month later he was kidnapped, and is still missing today.

His parents, Marc and Debra Tice, say they are “absolutely” certain Austin is still alive. They sat down for a rare interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday to explain their son’s story, and plead for his safe return.

Thirty-one-year-old Austin Tice disappeared in mid-August while reporting outside Damascus. His writing had been featured in the Washington Post and McClatchy newspapers.

In what would be the final Tweet before his capture in August, the Texas native appeared to be in good spirits. On August 11 he wrote, “Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by [Taylor Swift]. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.”

The Tices talked almost daily with their son, then suddenly they heard nothing from him for weeks.

After an agonizing wait, a video of the journalist surfaced on YouTube in September. The 47-second video showed Tice, obviously in distress, being led up a hill by armed and masked men chanting “Allahu Akbar” – God is the greatest.

Debra Tice said she went into physical shock when she saw the video, but also realized what it meant: Austin was still alive.

Tice’s father told Amanpour that “No parents, no family should see their son, their child, their sibling, in those circumstances,” but he hopes the video might ultimately lead to contact with whomever is holding their son.

Analysts say the video looks staged and that there are reasons to believe the men in the video are not the Islamic extremists they purport to be.

The U.S. State Department believes Tice is actually being held by the Syrian regime, a charge Damascus denies.

Tice’s parents say they do not want to speculate about who is holding him – they just want their son back home.

Debra Tice described Austin, the eldest of her seven children, as a passionate man. She tried to explain, for a mother, the seemingly inexplicable: Why her son would go to one of the most violent countries on earth.

“He likes to know what's going on in the world,” she said, and he was frustrated by the lack first-hand reporting from Syria’s civil war. He told her, “‘I'm someone that can go. I can face that danger because this story is important.’”

On the chance that Austin sees the interview his parents spoke directly to him: “Austin, we love you … we’re doing everything we can to get you safely home.”

The Tice family has established a website to help find their son:

Filed under:  Latest Episode • Syria

Strangulation of Iran's civil society

December 14th, 2012
10:05 AM ET

By Samuel Burke, CNN

Unlike many of its neighbors, Iran has enjoyed a strong civil society – the intellectuals and professionals who influence the national trajectory outside the spheres of government and business. This was especially true during the 1990s and early 2000s, during the presidency of reformist Mohammad Khatami.

According to Human Rights Watch, that distinction is slipping.

A conservative backlash to Khatami, the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the crackdown following the 2009 disputed elections have slowly strangulated the careers and lives of Iranian activists, human rights lawyers, bloggers and journalists.

Simply put, professionals are fleeing, fearing arbitrary arrests, detention and even death.

Since 2009, the number of civil society activists who have applied for asylum has steadily increased. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Iranians filed more than 11,000 new asylum applications in 2009, 15,000 in 2010 and 18,000 in 2011.

READ MORE: Number of jailed journalists worldwide reaches record high

Many activists have sought temporary refuge and an uncertain future in neighboring Turkey and Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch.

Faraz Sanei monitors the situation in Iran for the group, and told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the Iranian government used the 2009 elections as a pretext to go after any sort of dissent or and opposition in the country.

“That meant going after independent NGOs, independent journalists who were critical of the government and human rights activists,” he said. “Many of them were imprisoned - arbitrary arrests and detentions. Many of them were detained in secret detention facilities, tortured often and put in solitary confinement. They did not have access to lawyers.”

Many of these civil society professionals were given unfair trials in revolutionary courts, Sanei said, and sentenced to anywhere from five to 20 years in prison. Often, he said, their imprisonment was punishment essentially for doing their job: speaking out against the government and its actions.

There are currently 45 journalists in Iranian prisons according to the Committee to Protest Journalist – the second most of any country in the world, behind only Turkey.

Years of crackdowns are causing a brain drain, though it is not enough to be called a mass exodus, and nowhere near the refugee crisis that has resulted from Syria’s civil war,

Human rights lawyers are fleeing or in prison, including many of the colleagues of Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, who is also in prison.

Sanctions are seen by many in the West as a tool to help force change from the government, but many ordinary Iranians complain that the global sanctions against the country are hurting the very people that presumably the world wants to help.

Groups like Human Rights Watch are pushing for targeted human rights sanctions, against high-ranking individuals as well as security and intelligence forces, who they say are implicated in serious human rights violations.

They hope these measures might reverse the shrinking space in Iran’s civil society.

SPECIAL PRESENTATION – A Nuclear Iran: The Expert Intel

CNN’s Juliet Fuisz produced this piece for television.

Filed under:  Iran • Latest Episode

Who comprises the Syrian opposition?

December 14th, 2012
08:33 AM ET

Caroline Magee is a student journalist and guest writer for

The United States, along with several European and Gulf countries have now recognized the Syrian opposition. But who exactly is the opposition?

National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces

This is the opposition group that is being internationally recognized as representative of the Syrian people. Indeed, it was created in Doha, Qatar for the express purpose of unifying the different opposition groups.

The Coalition is a political organization. Its goal is to replace the Assad regime and to support the Free Syrian Army (explained below). While many of the smaller rebel coalitions have now rallied around this group, it has faced criticism from other groups parts of the coalition, especially specifically the al-Nusra front and leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, for being disconnected from the front line (the Coalition is establishing a base in Cairo) and because of ideological differences over Islam.

Free Syrian Army

This is the primary armed component of the opposition. It is comprised of defectors from the Assad regime’s army and is led by Selim Idris, who is a former Syrian army officer.

Al-Nusra Front

The United States has placed this rebel group on its list of terror organizations; administration officials say it is a branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Leaders of the Coalition say al-Nusra is relatively small, but also say they have been one of the most effective anti-Assad fighting forces in Syria. Because of al-Nusra’s fighting strength, many in the Free Syrian Army have protested the U.S. designation.

Kurdish Supreme Committee

This is the governing body for Syria’s Kurdish population. It receives support from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (the PYD), which has a Turkish equivalent – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – that the United States calls a terrorist organization.

The other group associated with the Kurdish Supreme Committee is the Kurdish National Council, which has had friction with the Turkish PYD over the group’s alleged past support of the Assad regime.