[UPDATED with UCI Nixing Meeting:] Dr. Hazem Chehabi Urged to Cut Ties With Syria's Brutal Regime or Step Down From UC Irvine Foundation Board
UPDATE, JULY 8, 5:25 P.M.: Syrian freedom activists say that when they protested at UC Irvine the morning of June 9, a campus official promised a future meeting with an associate chancellor to discuss what they consider a troubling relationship between Syria's brutal regime and Dr. Hazem Chehabi, Syria's honorary consul general in Newport Beach and the UCI Foundation's president-elect.
But the Syrian Emergency Task Force of Greater Los Angeles received word this week that meeting won't happen and, when later pressed by the Weekly, UCI officials claimed it was never promised.
When organizer Ammar Kahf of the Syrian Emergency Task Force had not heard back about a date for the meeting he told me his group was promised, he sent a letter to Deborah F. Nielsen of UCI Chancellor Michael Drake's office.
In fairness to the university, Kahf only mentions having requested a meeting, not being promised one, in the following letter:
Dear Ms. Debbie Nielsen,
My name is Ammar Kahf, and I am an organizer with the Syrian Emergency Task Force in Los Angeles which is a Syrian-American organization that works on supporting the aspirations and demands for freedom and democracy by the Syrian people. Human rights groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have documented numerous human rights abuses and mass killing on the hands of the Syrian people. His rule is an illegitimate one, as declared by his own people for killing his people.
We at the Syrian Emergency Task Force demand that our US government expel all Syrian diplomats to further put pressure on the Syrian state to move out and stop killings its people. Over 1,500 have been killed since March 15. We were shocked to notice that a Syrian diplomat who is very influential in Syrian affairs serves the esteemed UCI Foundation Board [as] president-elect. We issued several appeals for his removal unless he denounces his regime's killing unequivocally or resigns his Syrian diplomatic position. His post poses a great conflict between the values of democracy, freedom and civic society that UCI stands for and the killing and massacre that his regime represents.
We came to your office on June 9th and requested an appointment with UCI Chancellor to explain our position. I am still waiting for your response regarding an appointment.
Please review the following articles for your reference:
Also the national campaign to oust Syrian diplomats:
Also attached our appeal.
I await your reply with an appointment as this matter is of an urgent matter.
Ammar Kahf, Ph.D
Syrian Emergency Task Force-LA
Kahf then received this response:
Dear Mr. Kahf,
No one from campus is available to meet with you at this time.
Office of the Chancellor
University of California, Irvine
510 Aldrich Hall
Kahf cc'd me on his letter and Nielsen's response. So, I e-mailed Nielsen for an explanation, noting that I had been told a meeting with an associate chancellor had been promised on June 9. She did not reply, but Rex Bossert did. The UCI School of Law's assistant dean for Communications and Public Affairs explained he sometimes helps University Communications.
Bossert told me, "There is no meeting planned with this group, nor was one promised, as I understand, but the Chancellor has just issued this statement about Dr. Chehabi:"
Statement from UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake
We join the world community in expressing outrage at the continued violence toward unarmed civilians in Syria and in demanding that the violence stop. We appreciate Dr. Chehabi's support of our university and our students over the years. We support his efforts and those of the broader world community in reaching a peaceful and just resolution.
Bossert said he'd also be sharing the message with Kahf.
UPDATE, JUNE 9, 4:31 P.M.: This morning's rally at UC Irvine targeting Dr. Hazem H. Chehabi--the UCI Foundation's president-elect, Syria's honorary consul general in Newport Beach and a prominent Orange County philanthropist and nuclear medicine specialist--went "smooth," according to an organizer.
In fact, Ammar Kahf of the Syrian Emergency Task Force of Greater Los Angeles says the demonstration led to a promised future meeting with a campus official.
"We went in to ask for an appointment, and they promised a meeting soon with the associate chancellor," Kahf writes in an email to the Weekly.
UPDATE, JUNE 9, 9:47 A.M.: As blogged here repeatedly, Southern Californians shining a light on the brutal repression of their brothers and sisters in Syria have called on Dr. Hazem H. Chehabi to step down as that country's honorary consul general in Newport Beach or to quit (or be fired from) the UC Irvine Foundation Board of Directors, which has chosen the radiologist as its president-elect.
Protests have been staged outside the Newport Beach offices of the Syria consular and Chehabi's medical practice. It's UCI's turn this morning.
Protesters, who occupy a corner of Campus Drive and Berkeley Avenue from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today, "will ask Chehabi to resign from his position as consul or issue a public statement expressing unequivocal support for the legitimate demands of freedom and democracy by the Syrian people and strongly condemning the brutal response of that country's government," reads a statement from the Syrian Emergency Task Force of Greater Los Angeles. "The Syrian regime's response to peaceful protesters has included arbitrary detention, torture, mass killings, and shooting of civilians expressing their unalienable right of freedom of expression and self-determination."
Task force organizer Ammar Kahf calls it "immoral, hypocritical and unacceptable for a prestigious academic institution such as UCI, which teaches about democracy and freedom, to accept Dr. Chehabi on its board of trustees. Dr. Chehabi chooses to officially represent a brutal dictatorship that engages in the killing of its own people. It is contradictory to UCI's mission and values to accept on its board an official representative of a foreign government engaging in crimes against humanity."
Today's UCI protest will be a warm-up to another one nearby on Saturday, which has been dubbed "Global Syria Day." Rallies supporting freedom and drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis in Syria are planned in New York, Michigan, Germany, Montreal, Toronto, Arkansas, London, Vienna, Tunisia, France, Sweden, Algeria, Lebanon, Washington, D.C. and--from 6-8 p.m.--the corner of Culver Drive and Alton Parkway in Irvine.
Meanwhile, another physician has included a "Chehabi case study" in his column titled "Syrian Reform Starts at Home: Beginning to Crack the Global Syrian Culture of Fear" on Weiner-exposer Andrew Breitbart's Big Peace page. Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander who now practices medicine in Phoenix, Arizona, and presides over Save Syria Now! and the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, believes he has uncovered the reason Chehabi (whose last name he spells Chahabi) has not forcefully called out the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad.
Jasser writes that Chehabi's father, Hikmat (with yet a third spelling of the last name, Shihabi) was the Soviet-trained, "right-hand henchman" for Assad's father, Hafez:
Chahabi was head of the army when tanks surrounded Hama in 1982 and committed genocide against over 40,000 Syrians including women and children led by Rifat Assad. There was a similar heinous massacre in Tadmur in 1980 against political prisoners with thousands dying in cold blood at the hands of the Syrian military. The Syrian Human Rights Committee has a detailed accounting of the massacre and murders as well as a number of other crimes against humanity perpetrated by Hafez Assad and his military (of whom General Hikmat Chahabi was a leading figure).
Jasser goes on to accuse Hikmat Chehabi of being among those who looted Syria of millions of dollars. The power struggle that resulted after Hafez Assad died in 2000 and his son took over the country included charges of corruption leveled at Hazem Chehabi's father, according to the author. To save his hide, Hikmat retired to California to join his son. Jasser intimates that the father passed his wealth to his son, who has lavished Orange County charities, candidates like Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and especially UCI with tens of thousands of dollars over the years. The author dares call this blood money and finds it "incredulous" that media other than the Weekly have not picked up on the Chehabi story.
There needs to be an immediate public investigation into what Hazem Chahabi received if anything in exchange for all of those donations and more importantly what impact his involvement at UCI and in various political campaigns had upon American policy toward the pariah state of Syria. There also needs to be an investigation into why Chahabi's history was not a red flag to any of the institutions and politicians to whom he gave donations or was given positions of leadership. The Chahabis have given apparently vast sums of money to University of California-Irvine (UCI)--underwriting events like the UCI Medal winners dinner, where they gave $100,000 in 2003. The Chahabis later gave many additional donations to UCI, including the largest ever single donation of $1 million in 2005. It would also be interesting to know who the initial investors were in Dr. Chahabi's Newport Beach Diagnostic Center opened in the early '90s.
At the minimum, Chahabi's much publicized philanthropy bought him a pathological blindness from the local community of southern California regarding the corruption in Syria of which his family came out of and remained uncritically and intimately enmeshed. Perhaps Dr. Chahabi's move to the United States for medical specialization training and his posting as an 'honorary' Consul General combined with his father's marginalization from Hafez Assad's inner circle became an opportunity for the Chahabis to remain relevant and wealthy by becoming leaders in the current American influence operations of the Bashar Assad regime. It is exceedingly important for such an influential Californian to be transparent about the origin of the millions he donates to American institutions.
Jasser concludes by saying citizens of Syria and the United States deserve better.
UPDATE, MAY 30, 10:37 A.M.: The Syrian Emergency Task Force-Greater LA has rallied outside the Syria Consulate office in Newport Beach and asked Dr. Hazem H. Chehabi to step down as honorary consul general (or for the UC Irvine Foundation to drop him from its board if he doesn't) over human rights abuses in his homeland.
Now, the group is moving their protest to the front of Chehabi's Newport Beach medical office.
It's set to begin at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Newport Diagnostic Center, 1605 Avocado Ave., where the call will be the same:
The good doctor must step down.
UPDATE, MAY 19, 3:37 P.M.: While applauding sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Syrian President Bashar Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, a Phoenix, Arizona-based Syrian rights group is calling for even stronger measures.
Among them: "Immediate dismissal of all Syrian diplomats on American soil."
How would that apply to Dr. Hazem H. Chehabi, the Newport Beach-based honorary consul general for Syria?
Zuhdi Jasser, the leader of Save Syria Now!, tells the Weekly: "Just like support of Hamas became illegal and the Holy Land Foundation trial convicted its board members of aiding a terrorist group identified by the US government as a terror group. Mr. Chehabi needs to publicly immediately dissociate his association with the barbaric regime of Bashar Assad and his henchmen or suffer the legal repercussions which I hope and pray now exist with official sanctions now in place against the Assad regime and his family.
"If not, Mr. Chehabi needs to be publicly repudiated as a sympathizer with a pariah state and government of Syria and an enemy of freedom and liberty of the Syrian people and humanitarian principles. Personally, I believe Mr. Chehabi also should apologize for his facilitation and empowerment on American soil of the vicious Assad regime and he should realize that while he may just have an honorary position this complicity holds him morally accountable for the regime he represents."
But Jasser conceded that, legally, Chehabi cannot be removed from the country like full-time Syrian officials.
"As an American citizen he is not just a diplomat so I do not believe he can be booted out like diplomats who are given those privileges while we have good diplomatic relations," Jasser said. "But certainly he should be held publicly accountable for his associations and removed from any American institutions that stand for individual rights and freedom."
Meanwhile, Jasser and Save Syria Now! had earlier issued the following statement about the unrest in their homeland and the U.S. response to it:
Syrian Americans applaud the long overdue decision of President Obama to sanction Bashar Assad; Save Syria Now! pleads for President Obama to do all in US power to hasten the departure of the Assad regime
PHOENIX (May 18, 2011) -Dr. Zuhdi Jasser from Save Syria Now!, released the following statement in support of President Obama's long overdue decision to sanction Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"We applaud the long overdue decision of President Obama to impose sanctions on the despotic and morally corrupt regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This decision brings much needed attention to the plight of the Syrian people and will hopefully embolden other nations to abandon any belief that the Assad regime is anything other than thugs and criminals. Assad's brutalization of the Syrian people can not be allowed to stand. The unfolding daily humanitarian disaster in the towns and on the streets of Syria with the Syrian military and police shooting democracy activists in cold blood, cutting off towns from the outside world and the complete isolation of Syria from foreign media have created an unconscionable situation for the Syrian people. Any verbiage from the Assad regime about 'negotiations' or 'reform' are all pure and simple lies.
"As Americans of Syrian descent we now ask President Obama to demand that President Bashar Assad and his ruling family of thugs go. The Assad regime has proven time and again that it cares little for the Syrian people and that it has no fear of retribution for its daily immoral and barbaric acts against its own people. As Syrians who enjoy the freedoms of America we demand our governments do everything possible to fulfill our moral obligations to stand for freedom in Syria against the brutality of the Assad regime.
"We implore the administration and our western allies to levy the heaviest sanctions available including:
"1- Immediate removal from Damascus of our U.S. Ambassador to Syria.
"2- Immediate dismissal of all Syrian diplomats on American soil. Our Syrian American contacts tell us that the intelligence operations against Syrian American families and their families in Syria by Syrian government sympathizers on American soil have been ratcheted up to the highest level in recent history as they collect names and impose a culture of fear upon Syrian Americans and their families in Syria. This protects them and sends a clear message about with whom we will maintain diplomatic relations.
"3- Economic sanctions against the Syrian government and its henchmen. The seizure and freezing of assets connected to the leading elite of the Assad government (political, military, and security forces).
"4- Demand that military vehicles, tanks, and personnel leave the streets of Syria (not just air activity as done with Libya) and permit the free open assembly of Syrian citizens. Humanitarian disasters are continuing in towns like Dara'a and Baniyas that have been under complete siege by Assad's tanks and military personnel. Food, water, electricity, and health care has been completely cut off from the people of Dara'a, Baniyas and other towns rising to demonstrate against the Assad regime. A mass grave of democracy activists was recently found in Dara'a.
"5- Demand the opening of Syria and its streets to international media and human rights organizations.
"6- Pass Senate Resolution introduced by Senators Lieberman, Rubio and Kyl condemning the Assad Regime and urge the House to also act now to pass the strongest language possible against the Assad regime.
"7- Push the U.N to support and reach out actively and openly to the heroic groups on the ground protesting against the despotism of Assad's regime.
"8- An urgent press conference by leading elected officials in DC on Syria to demonstrate the seriousness and level of attention necessary.
"The Syrian people are calling for freedom and are paying the ultimate price for their courage. As a country based in the concepts of 'Liberty for All,' we must support the efforts of the Syrian people to lift the yoke of oppression and step out from the boot of the Assad regime."
About Save Syria Now!
Save Syria Now! is a group of Americans of Syrian descent organizing to put pressure on the United States to call for immediate action to be taken against the regime of Bashar Assad of Syria and to bring true liberty to the people of Syria. We stand with the Syrians protesting in the streets to end the tyranny of the Assad family.
UPDATE, MAY 18, 10:25 A.M.: U.S. officials say the Obama administration will slap sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.
The Washington Post breaks the news on the first time the Syrian leader has been personally penalized for the actions of his security forces.
ORIGINAL POST, MAY 12, 8:42 A.M.: A prominent, Newport Beach board-certified physician in nuclear medicine is being urged to resign as the honorary consul general for Syria, whose treatment of peaceful demonstrators was just deemed "brutal" by the U.S. government Wednesday.
And if Dr. Hazem H. Chehabi refuses to cut his ties with the current regime in Syria, he should step down from the University of California Irvine Foundation Board of Trustees, which has selected him its president-elect, it is further demanded.
Making those demands is the Syrian Emergency Task Force of Greater Los Angeles that has staged demonstrations in Orange and Los Angeles counties in support of Syria's "freedom movement" and against President Bashar al-Assad's government. A March protest was held at Chehabi's Consulate General of Syria office near the corner of San Joaquin Hills and Jamboree roads in Newport Beach.
Organizer Ammar Kahf explains the task force believes Chehabi "is representing a brutal regime" and that his government role, albeit honorary, clashes with the mission of the UCI Foundation board, which promotes the university, seeks to boost philanthropy and manages and grows the university endowment.
2010 UCI Medal Award winners Salma and Hazem Chehabi
In a letter sent to Chehabi Wednesday, the group demands that the physician "declare a public position on the Syrian regime atrocities and resign his post as Consul of Syria." (Here is the
Chehabi accepted one of those challenges.
"Personally, I am opposed to the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators, and find no justification whatsoever in shooting unarmed civilians," Chehabi responded in an email to the Weekly. "I am saddened about the daily loss of life in Syria and hope to see it come to an end as quickly as possible."
He also displayed deft diplomacy when it came to his critic.
"Mr. Kahf enjoys living in a free country where he can express his opinions," Chehabi notes. "He is entitled to his opinion."
It is the opinion of many local Syrian-Americans that Chehabi is a government stooge, as pro-freedom protesters accuse the consul general and consulate staff of snapping photos of them at rallies around Southern California and passing information about them to the Syrian government's intelligence agency.
Based on these allegations, the Syrian Emergency Task Force has issued a
from the UCI Foundation board.
Officials at UCI declined to comment on the task force's demands when contacted by the Weekly.
So far, the Los Angeles chapter has only appealed to Chehabi, the university and the public. The Syrian Emergency Task Force main office in Washington, D.C., has turned to the U.S. courts, filing a federal lawsuit against top Syrian officials, including the Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Chehabi is not named in the complaint.
Chehabi began working with UCI doctors soon after he began practicing medicine in Orange County in 1989. He offered his Newport Diagnostics Center facilities for training and began serving as a volunteer faculty member in UCI's Department of Radiological Sciences in 1994. He is the author of several articles in medical journals and a former president of the Medical Board of California.
He joined the UCI Foundation board in 2006 and his term ends in 2012. Chehabi has chaired the board's Strategic Planning Committee and served on the Executive, Nomination Board Development and Strategic Communications committees. He's also been a member of the Athletic Director Advisory/Leadership Council and School of Social Ecology and is a Chancellor's Club Lifetime Member.
Chehabi and wife Salma Chehabi spread the philanthropic wealth beyond UCI. Just this week, they doled out $6,000 for a Pelican Hill Villa Getaway at the 2011 Human Options Dove Award fund-raiser honoring the Peter and Virginia Ueberroth Family Foundation. Salma Chehabi also has ties to UCI, having earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences there in 1999 and going on to add a bachelor's degree in psychology and social behavior from the university.
Kahf, a second generation Syrian-American born in the U.S., has UC ties as well. A Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, he's in the process of submitting an approved thesis titled "Syrian Authoritarianism: Persistence or Change."
His sister is Mohja Kahf, a poet, author and associate professor of comparative literature and faculty member of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Her family has long been involved in Syrian opposition politics, which has also been a theme of some of her writings.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.