Historical Hints and Backgrounds
The massacre of Palmyra (Tadmur) Prison that was executed on the morning of June 27, 1980, when hundreds of Islamist political detainees were killed, did not take place out of nothing and was not the result of a moment of anger, as some apologists attempt to justify the unjustifiable. This horrible massacre occurred in the natural context of soaring practices adopted by extermination forces within the Syrian regime and its security apparatus.
In the wake of the massacre of the Artillery School in which official Syrian sources estimate 32 cadets were killed and 54 others wounded and of which the Muslim Brotherhood denied any prior knowledge let alone any involvement therein, and for which Adnan Uqlah’s Tali’ah Fighters declared responsibility, the security forces carried out an intensive campaign of arrests and combed the Syrian cities and towns. Within a few weeks the number of detainees exceeded eight thousand. Twenty odd detainees were presented to the State Security Court to be sentenced to immediate death. The country was then overwhelmed by a wave of repression and expression of hostile sentiments.
Such acts provoked many sectors of the nation and the summer of 1979 was characterized by intense encounters. The wave of detentions and arrests, torture, investigations and the manifestation of sectarian feelings intensified. There appeared conspicuous names in the circle of the regime that adopted the theory of the scorched land and the policy of revolutionary violence. The name of Rif’at Asad was the most conspicuous among them for being the most radical and the most interested person in popularizing homicide, bloodshed, violence, destruction and provoking public feelings and instigating sectarianism.
Rif’at Asad: the Engineer and Schemer of the Massacre
Rif’at Asad is the younger brother of Hafiz Asad. He worked as a corporal and then a sergeant in the political division in the Governorate of Idlib under the leadership of the chief of the political division Muhammad al-Khatib, who was later appointed by Hafiz Asad as Minister of Endowments. He obtained his secondary school certificate after the coup of March 1963 and then enrolled in the Military College in a session called the Ba’th Session in which partisans and other members regarded as belonging to the regime participated. All of them were graduates in the Teachers’ Training College and most of them were old men. At the end of the session they became officers working in the Syrian Army.
In 1971, Captain Rif’at assumed the post of commanding the Defence Brigades shortly after the coup of his brother Hafiz al-Asad, and began to form his Brigades transferring some of the elements and officers that belonged to the regular army thereto. Meanwhile he sent a group of these officers to the villages of the Syrian coast to invite the youths to join these Brigades through alluring offers. Rif’at used the sectarian hostile feelings as a continuous policy of appointments in the Defence Brigades and adopted an ardent sectarian policy till those Brigades turned to be a burden on Hafiz Asad, who ordered their dissolution in the mid-eighties.
Rif’at Asad was the founder of the theory called “Revolutionary Violence” in which he followed the approach of extermination, and partiality towards the Party. His role models and examples in life were extermination movements and blood-thirsty historical figures, such as Stalin and Lenin. This is clearly manifest in the speech he delivered before the Seventh Regional Conference of the Arab Socialist Ba’th Party where he said: “O Comrades! Stalin annihilated ten million human beings for the sake of the Communist Revolution, keeping in mind one thing only; namely, bigotry for the party and the theory of the party. If Lenin had lived the situation, the circumstance and the time Stalin had lived he would have done what Stalin had done. The nations that want to live or survive are in need of a bigoted man and a fanatical party or theory.”
It was Rif’at Asad that advocated the notion of removing the veil from the heads of Syrian veiled women. The women parachutists who belonged to the organizations of the regime attacked the veil of women in the streets in the summer and autumn of 1980. On 17/10/1980 the Swiss newspaper “Lawserner Nwsta” eloquent reported: “The aggression against the veiled women in Syria is one of the ways Asad follows to combat Islam.” The idea of “desert cultivation” was one of the bright ideas produced by Rif’at’. The ideawas basically to send the religious Muslims or what he called “the criminals and deviants” to the desert to rehabilitate them and force them to cultivate the desert land and rid them from destructive thoughts or what he called “religious heresy”. Whoever recanted his belief and gave up his principles and vowed allegiance to the Party would be brought back to the society. The others would stay there lest their ill behavior should spread throughout society. Thus the government would realize two objectives: it would get rid of the Syrian oppositionists and also benefit by the desert cultivation. (See the speech of Rif’at at the Seventh Regional Conference of the Socialist Ba’th Party).
Rif’at al-Asad disrupted the attempts to arrive at a peaceful settlement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian Government, and perhaps what confirms this most was what he did in early 1980. During this period an agreement was concluded between the representatives of President Hafiz Asad, on the one hand, and Amin Yakun—who Hafiz wanted to intercede with the Brotherhood—on the other hand, to release the political detainees as a condition to stop violence. Some prisoners were actually released, but Rif’at hurried to execute the man in charge of the Tali’ah Fighters, Husni ‘Abu, who was supposed to be set free according to the agreement, disregarding the instructions of Hafiz Asad. That led to the resumption of serious escalation which resulted in massacres on which the fingerprints of Ra’at were clear. The most obvious massacre was that of Palmyra (Tadmur) Prison in 1980. The massacres continued to culminate in the major massacre of Hama two years after those negotiations. (the introduction of Violet Daghir: Human Rights and Democracy in Syria).
The massacre that Rif’at Asad committed with the approval of his brother Hafiz, continued successively by using officers and individuals that carried hatred and adopted violence. He committed a series of massacres in 1980 and the massacre of Tadmur Prison was the most horrible and the bloodiest. Therefore, the claim of those who justified the massacre on the pretext that it had been in response to an attempt to assassinate Hafiz Asad was invalid. The massacre had been anticipated from the early scheming of Rif’at and his partners in the security apparatus. The project Rif’at had submitted to the Seventh Regional Conference in late 1979 and early 1980 contained a precise description of his vision of adopting physical elimination of Islamists or religious, or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tadmur Prison had been first used in 1979 to confine civilian detainees who were affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists and affiliates of other groups. But during the few weeks prior to the massacre instructions were given to the Administration of the Military Intelligence and the Administration of State Security and General Intelligence to transfer the largest possible number of the detainees who had been interrogated or had no important information that necessitated their stay there. This constituted a significant clue as to the occurrence of a very serious imminent happening planned under the dominance of the extermination trend that owned vast authority granted by the head of the regime.
Another indication is what some informed figures within the offices of the regime said: A few weeks prior to the massacre, Major Ghazi Kan’an, head of the Military Intelligence branch in Homs threatened that 2000 roses from the city of Homs would be planted in the desert of Tadmur, in a clear hint to the imminent massacre that was subsequently committed in cold blood. He later admitted indirectly to some of the relatives of the victims, that they had disappeared in Tadmur. After the campaign adopted by Amnesty International to investigate the case of the disappearance of the neurologist in Homs Tawfiq Darraq al-Sibaa’I, and following visits made by the relatives of the physician, Ghazi told them that he had received instructions to transfer him to Tadmur Prison on the 2nd of June, 1980.
The tool of executing the massacre at Tadmur: The Defense Brigades
Rif’at al-Asad instituted the Defense Brigades, or what is officially called “the Brigades of Defending the Homeland and Protecting the Revolution”, in 1971 shortly after the coup of Hafiz Asad and his assumption of authority. The objective of establishing the Brigades was initially to protect governmental institutions and buildings against probable coups. These Brigades, which were outside the control of the regular army, reached their utmost power in the seventies and comprised more than 40,000 soldiers. Raf’at, the sole commander of the Brigades, started implementing his theories of revolutionary violence, homicide, partiality, sectarianism and extermination, till he turned into a violent hateful terrible person.
The Defence Brigades were armed with the most modern offensive, defensive and mechanical weapons. They also had their own air forces, military police, intelligence and prisons. With theses planes and privileges, Rif’at was able to attack Tadmur prison and slaughter unarmed prisoners that were in the custody of the judiciary to investigate their cases and pass its sentences against them.
Human Rights Watch goes one step further to say that in the Defense Brigades, there are special gangs that kidnap women and girls and kill some of the business partners of Rif’at, such as ‘Abdul-Rahman al-‘Attar, who was thrown from the sixth floor of the building of the Airline company. The Brigades operated as a device to remove the veils from women in the streets and schools of Damascus. (Reference: Human Rights Watch, and the testimony of a contemporary eye-witness.)
Hafiz Asad had to dissolve the Defence Brigades and keep his brother Rif’at away after he had become a danger threatening him personally, and after he realized that the dangerous policies of sectarianism, extermination, violence and corruption practiced by Rif’at in his name, would not leave him an ally in the authority or a friend in the sect.
The Location of the Massacre: History and Geography
Palmyra (Tadmur) prison is situated in the desert city of Tadmur in Homs Governorate, 250 km Northwest of Damascus. The authority of the French Mandate built the prison of Tadmur during the first thirty years of the 20th century and used it as a military barracks. But later on it was used as a prison for the conscripts and military men who were accused of committing offences during their service or ordinary crimes. From early seventies, Hafiz Asad started using Tadmur prison for detaining political prisoners away from towns and in isolation from the world. However, detention would not last more than a few months. As to the international notorious repute this horrible prison uniquely acquired, this can be traced back to 1979, when the authorities started sending large groups of political prisoners to Tadmur, where they were separated from the detained military men.
Tadmur Prison is the largest and most notorious prison in Syria. It was notorious for the cruel treatment of the detainees and the programmed daily inhuman torture that led to the death of many and left its fast traces on the psyche and personality of those who survived. The prison is administered by the Military Police, but the political prisoners are in the charge of the Military Intelligence, whilst a force from the Special Units guard the prison. Since it is a military prison, it is not supervised by the Ministry of Justice, which inspects civil prisons at various intervals. (Amnesty International Organization: Syria: torture, despair, and deprivation of humanity in the military prison of Tadmur).
Among the people of Syria, Tadmur prison is called “the prison of Islamists”, due to the fact that the authorities often devoted it to the members of Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliates, or those merely suspected of being religiously devout. However, there were certainly other groups that were considered unfavorably by the regime, such as the Iraqi Ba’thists and the Communists.
Tadmur prison witnessed all cruel practices invented by the sadistic genius of the regime against the prisoners. Some of the prisoners who were rescued from the inferno of Tadmur have documented in books and diaries the torture, humiliation and suppression they suffered. An eye-witness reported various types of torture, such as whipping, hitting on the head with iron bars, and hanging by the legs to elicit or extract confessions, besides other means that are more sophisticated technically, such as the use of the German chair and electric shocks. Organizations working in the humanitarian field have counted tens of means and devices used in torturing prisoners, repressing them and destroying them physically and spiritually, till death. More than 70% of the victims that had been sent to Tadmur were subjected to this treatment.
The Colossal Event: the Massacre of the Desert Prison of Tadmur
The massacre of Tadmur is regarded as the most abominable massacre committed in Syria against unarmed prisoners. Despite attempts of the regime to conceal the massacre, its news leaked out through security and official persons, either out of pride or out of disgust. Foreign diplomatic sources in Damascus also reported what they heard about the event. Then the full scale of the massacre came through some of its executants who were arrested in Jordan after their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the former Jordanian Prime Minister Mudar Badran, a few months after the massacre.
The massacre was committed on the morning of the 27th of June. Some sources, particularly Western researches—who did not witness and were not familiar with the horror of what had been going on in Syria and whom some of the circles of the regime intrigued into imagining what they portrayed—claim that the massacre was a revengeful response on the part of the regime for the alleged unsuccessful attempt of the Muslim Brotherhood to assassinate the President Hafiz Asad on 26/6/1980. Rif’at Asad blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and decided to revenge in Tadmur prison, which his brother-in-law Mu’in Nasif, Commander of Core 40 of the Defence Brigades at that time, described as “the largest den of the Muslim Brotherhood”. According to the account of some of the executants of the massacre who had been arrested by the Jordanian Government in the wake of the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the Jordanian Prime Minister in 1981, Defense Brigades soldiers were told to gather around 3 a.m. with their full military uniforms in the cinema of Core 40, where Major Mu’in Nasif was waiting for them. He addressed them saying: “These members of Muslim Brotherhood no longer distinguish between a ‘Alawi Muslim and a Sunni Muslim and a Christian. They want to kill people. Yesterday they tried to murder the President. Therefore, you are going to launch an attack at the greatest den of theirs; namely, Tadmur prison. Who does not want to fight? Nobody raised his hand. It was a military command.” (from the testimony of ‘Isa Fayyad, one of the participants in the massacre of Tadmur prison.)
Then twelve helicopters took off from the Mazza airport near Damascus towards Tadmur prison, each carrying thirty members of the Defense Brigades and surrounded the prison, brought the guards out of it and started firing on the detainees without a single word or a prior warning. The Brigades used grenades to annihilate the prisoners. One of the prisoners managed to hide in