Riad Seif elected head of leading opposition Syrian group

Syrian dissident Riad Seif attends a meeting of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, formed after the Syrian National Council (SNC) agreed to the new group, in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012.

:: Riad Seif, a 70-year-old, Syrian political dissident and prominent businessman, has been elected on Saturday as the head of the leading opposition group Syrian National Coalition, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.

Seif, a secular human rights advocate, was previously elected as one of the two vice presidents for the Syrian National Coalition. He is now the opposition group’s sixth president.

Seif, who hails from Damascus, won 58 votes from the Istanbul-based National Coalition’s 102 members, beating out the younger Khaled Khoja.

Born into a family of modest means in Damascus, he began working in a textiles factory aged 12, before eventually opening his own workshop, which later became a profitable factory.

Besides owning an Adidas franchise in the capital Damascus, Seif had his political experience as a member of parliament in Syria in 1994 when he was elected as an independent and again in 1998.

He is also the founder of the Forum for National Dialogue to promote political debate and freedom after the death of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad in June 2000.

In January 2001, Seif also expressed his desire to create a new political party in a country that has long been dominated by the ruling Baath Party. One of his seminars also drew the attendance of several hundred people on September 5, 2001, urging for reforms and change, including the call for civil disobedience.

The businessman-turned-dissident later faced the wrath of the Syrian regime due to his political activism when he was accused of “attempting to change the constitution by illegal means” and “inciting racial and sectarian strife,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) had earlier reported.

This has led to his conviction and sentence to five years in prison. He was released in early 2006.

Seif is one of the few lawmakers to have openly criticized the regime and its economic policies. However, Agence France-Presse reported that he spent a total of eight years in jail for organizing weekly roundtables at his home on human rights issues in the 2000s and left Syria in June 2012.

In his new role, he will replace current head Anas al-Abdeh, who was elected in March 2016.

National Coalition members also elected Abdulrahman Mustafa and Salwa Ktaw as vice presidents.

The Syrian National Coalition was formed on November 11, 2012 in the Qatari capital of Doha, and currently it has its headquarters in the Syrian city of Idlib. The group’s council, which has 114 members, seeks to oust President Bashar al-Assad, who took reign of power after his father’s death.

Syria’s war began in 2011 with widespread demonstrations against the Assad government, which responded with a brutal crackdown.

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