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Syrian activist in hiding, son says

JOHANNESBURG -- One of the most prominent opponents of the Syrian regime fears for his life and is in hiding, but that has not stopped him from speaking out, his son said Thursday during a visit to South Africa.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has used brutal force against pro-democracy protests, but the demonstrations have grown. Human Rights Watch says more than 1,300 have been killed since the protests began four months ago.

Iyas Maleh said his father, 80-year-old Haitham al-Maleh, remains in Syria but has fled his home and is reluctant to use his mobile phone for fear that security agents will trace him. Maleh said his father, a critic of the Syrian regime for decades, has used other means to speak out, including emails and interviews via voice-over-Internet devices.

"The fear is really not an arrest," Maleh said of his father, who has spent years in Syrian prisons for his political activism. "They might actually try to get rid of him." Maleh said neighbors had told the family that security agents seen near his father's home have been saying "they have orders to shoot and not to arrest any more," and that one young neighbor had been offered money to assault his father.

Amnesty International has included al-Maleh among at least a dozen prominent rights and political activists in Syria it believes have been forced into hiding after receiving threats of violence and arrests.

Al-Maleh was arrested in 2009 for "spreading false information" after giving a television interview that criticized Assad's government. He was held pending trial until his release in March following an amnesty issued by Assad.

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