A prominent Boston philanthropist yesterday defended comments he made last year in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose brutal crackdown on protesters has stirred international condemnation.
Bobby Sager, chairman of the board of Polaroid and globe-trotting head of his own charity, contended that the comments reflected what he saw during a trip to Syria last March, but that he is now “greatly saddened’’ by what is unfolding there.
After his March visit, Sager wrote in an e-mail to Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior adviser to Assad, that journalists had presented a distorted picture of the rebellion and the government’s response in Syria.
“The Syria that I spent last week in does not resemble the sensationalist images that are endlessly played and replayed by the international media,’’ he wrote on March 25, two days after Syrian police reportedly killed 15 protesters in a predawn raid. “What is important now is for committed friends to be vocal in their support of President Assad’s leadership.’’
“I will take my first-hand understanding into the world and argue loudly and convincingly that President Assad, far from being the problem, is actually the most critical part of the solution,’’ Sager added.
Sager’s e-mail came to light after a hacker collective called LulzFinancial published the logins and passwords to personal accounts of senior Syrian officials. Followers of the collective were able to gain access to the accounts, and the gossip website Gawker published the correspondence with Shaaban under a headline accusing Sager of being “a Shill For Syria’s Brutal Dictator.’’
Yesterday, Sager said that the purpose of his trip had been “to see whether I could stimulate positive, constructive change by encouraging Syrian leadership to be open-minded about change.’’
“I am very disappointed to see that such a change has not come, and I am greatly saddened to see the escalation in violence in the 11 months since my visit,’’ he wrote, adding that he had not been back to Syria or contacted Syrian officials since March 2011.
“I have not advocated on behalf of the Syrian government to anyone at anytime,’’ Sager wrote in an e-mail response to questions from the Globe.
Sager made his fortune by turning a small Boston jewelry liquidator into a global financial advisory firm, but he has spent much of the last decade roaming the world for the charity he calls the Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow. He has created foundations with the Dalai Lama and the musician Sting, set up programs that train female doctors in Afghanistan, and arranged microloans for women who survived the genocide in Rwanda to start small businesses.
He took on the challenge of trying to turn around Polaroid after his firm, Gordon Brothers Group, and Hilco Consumer Capital LP bought the struggling company out of bankruptcy for $85.9 million in 2009.
Sager has worked his way into the spotlight of pop culture, making public appearances with Lady Gaga and serving as the inspiration of the NBC drama “The Philanthropist.’’
He has not avoided controversy: The Sager Family Foundation provided support for “Budrus,’’ an award-winning 2009 documentary that explored the difficult subject of a Palestinian leader who tries to save his village from destruction by the separation barrier Israel decided to construct with the aim of protecting its citizens from terrorists.
The current flap over Sager’s e-mails came amid reports of a bloody offensive by Syrian government troops on the city of Homs, in which human rights agencies say hundreds of civilians have been killed. The United Nations’ top human rights official, Navi Pillay, called for immediate action to stop the bloodshed. Pillay’s office estimated in early January that 5,400 people have been killed in Syria’s upheaval since the uprising and the crackdown against it began in March.
Sager, in his e-mail, declined to say whether he still supported Assad. He said that he often works directly with leaders “because they are people who have the ability to positively impact the most people.’’
The approach used by Sager is not unusual, said Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
“To do anything in a country around the Middle East you need government authorization,’’ Khouri said. “If you want to do charitable contributions, open a school, you need government approval. Having a relationship with the great leader will almost always make it easier.’’
And it is possible that an American in Sager’s position saw Syria in a more positive light than the news reports about violence in Homs suggest.