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, 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 5-month anti-government uprising.
The gunmen told Ferzat "this is just a warning," 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, who spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation.
Before inheriting Syria's presidency from his father in 2000, Bashar Assad 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.
Copies of each issue sold out a few hours after hitting the stands. It was soon shut down as Assad cracked down on dissent and jailed critics after the brief, heady Damascus Spring period quickly lost steam. Ferzat became a vehement critic of the regime, particularly after the military launched a brutal crackdown on the country's protest movement.
Human rights groups said Assad's forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising against his autocratic rule erupted in mid-March.
An endearing figure with a bushy gray beard, Ferzat drew cartoons about the uprising and posted the them on his private website, providing comic relief to Syrians who were unable to follow his work in local newspapers because of a ban on his art.
His illustrations grew bolder in recent months, with some 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.