Last month (August 2015), BBC Arabic aired an interview with Ribaal Rif’at al-Asad, who devoted the whole duration of the interview to negate his father’s responsibility to the crimes which took place in Syria during the eighties, as well as denying that his father and the Defence Brigades participated in the Hama massacre, and that the Tadmur Prison massacre had even taken place. He also accused SHRC of fabricating the whole incident.
During his interview, Ribaal also claimed that his uncle, the late president Hafiz al-Asad, was innocent of any crimes which took place during his presidency (1971-2000) and that the circle close to him had committed crimes.
A System of War Criminals
The Asad regime committed abhorrent crimes against humanity on a widespread scale, encompassing tens of massacres (the most prominent of which was the Hama massacre in which around 25,000 Syrians were killed) as well as the kidnapping of thousands of people, many of whom were killed in periodic executions or through direct killing (as happened in the Tadmur massacre of 27/6/1980), whilst thousands were detained for long periods of time- ranging between ten to twenty years- in which they witnessed some of the worst torture which humanity has witnessed.
The war crimes committed during the tenure of Hafiz al-Asad do not need much introduction or debate, as they have been documented widely in an unlimited number of testimonials, documents, books, human rights reports and so on. In addition, those close to the regime and even members of the regime themselves did not deny these massacres. Rather, they confirmed them on a number of occasions.
More so, biographers of Hafiz al-Asad (including those close to him), in addition to security and political reports of a number of countries, have affirmed that Asad personally controlled and held the reins of power in a manner that did not even allow a soldier to move from one place to another without his consent (as mentioned in Patrick Seale’s book “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East”). Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone from his security system would commit an act as large as a massacre and genocide, or would execute a large number of people periodically, without his agreement and personal supervision.
Readings into Hafiz al-Asad’s tenure and the way in which the security and military apparatus ran, reveal that it is impossible that the leader of the Defence brigades (the most powerful block within the Syrian army at the time in which widespread violations and crimes were being committed) could be far from these crimes, or that his role was limited to protecting the republican palace and the city of Damascus. This is the way in which Rifa’at al-Asad is attempting to portray himself, despite the fact that it is refuted by his career and speeches he personally delivered.
Rif’at: A Fascist War Criminal
The accusation of Rif’at al-Asad as a war criminal does not require proof of his direct participation in Tadmur prison massacre, as his file is full of many evidences pointing to his direct involvement in illegal killing, forced kidnappings, torture, the theft of possessions, and assassinations outside Syria, until he left Syria in 1984.
Hi speech in the Seventh Regional Conference of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party which took place in Damascus in late December 1979 is one of the most prominent of his speeches in which his fascist manner in dealing with his opponents came to the fore quite clearly.
In the speech, he began by noting that “Stalin finished off 10 million people for the sake of the Communist revolution, bearing in mind only one thing: the bigotry to the party and its vision. And if Lenin was in the time and position of Stalin he would have done the same thing, for nations which want to live, survive and remain are in need of a man who is a fanatic to his party and to its vision” and that “Mao Zedong led a nation of 800 million to salvation and human immortality by loyally and fanatically holding on to one slogan- that of the sectarian party”. He then suggested that “the authorities issue a law which calls for a national purification which will affect those who have strayed off the national path and who embrace subversive principles affecting nationalistic thoughts and its survival”. He also added that “authorities should legalise the creation of military training camps to correct those who have erred and place them on the national path. The military camps will be the place of detention for those who have been sentenced their by popular courts- which will have the authority to do so due to the (national cleansing) law mentioned above.”
And in the opening paragraphs of Tishreen Newspaper of 1/7/1980 (three days after the Tadmur prison massacre), Rif’at was quoted as saying “if it is necessary… we are prepared to participate in one hundred battles, destroy a thousand fortresses, and sacrifice a million martyrs, in order to restore safety, love, the holiness of our country, and the dignity of the citizen.”
This quote from the newspaper coincides well with the above mentioned speech at the seventh regional conference, in addition to many other speeches he delivered on more than one occasion including both when he was in Syria and afterwards- when commenting on his position in the previous regime of Hafiz al-Asad and that he and the Defence brigades were part of this regime.
In his interview on BBC Arabic, Ribaal Rif’at al-Asad confirmed that his father was in a state of full coherence with Hafiz al-Asad’s policies, and that he was prepared to implement and execute whatever he asked of him. When he was asked if his father took part in the Hama massacre, Ribal al-Asad denied this, however he affirmed that his father would have done so had Hafiz al-Asad asked of him.
Did the Tadmur massacre really take place?
Ribaal al-Asad denied that the Tadmur prison massacre had taken place, and accused SHRC of fabricating its events, saying that the Asad regime would commit periodic executions and therefore was in no need of committing a massacre in which hundreds would be killed- as it was killing them on a regular basis anyway!
Ribaal’s proof for this was an interview conducted by the German newspaper Der Spiegel with the previous defence minister Mustafa Tlaas (who served in that position between1972-2004) on 8/8/2005, in which Tlaas said that 150 commands to execute would be issued in Damascus alone every week. He also commented, “We gained power through force. Whoever wants power will have to take if away from us through his weapons”.
The aim of Tadmur prison massacre was to execute an immediate act of revenge after the attempted assassination of President Hafiz al-Asad. This act did not contradict or have an effect on the continuation of the weekly executions, both before and after the massacre took place.
Ribaal al-Asad’s denial of the Tadmur massacre contradicts dozens of proofs and evidences- some of which his father was caught up in- of its having taken place. Below are some of the most prominent evidences of the massacre.
Lawyer of Rif’at al-Asad Affirms massacre by French Court Rule
In the court case of the journalist Nizar Nayouf, which took place in Paris during 2002-3, the lawyer of Rif’at al-Asad affirmed that the Tadmur massacre took place, although he attempted to deny Asad’s responsibility for it. In fact, it was Rif’at al-Asad who took Nayouf to court following an interview aired by Aljazeera with the journalist on 15/8/2001 in which he accused Rif’at al-Asad of committing the massacre. Rif’at had called for a compensation of hundreds of thousands of French Franks in return for the defamation and libelity he was subjected to as an “important national figure”.
On 30/1/2003, Chamber 17 of the Press court in Paris declared Nayouf not responsible for the accusations of defamation and liability which Rif’at had claimed.
Rif’at’s lawyers did not attempt to deny the massacre in any of the court sessions, as they based their line of defence on the argument that their client had not participated in the massacre. Even so, Rif’at still lost the case. In fact Brigitte Cheema, the public prosecutor in the court which issued the sentence, spoke at length in front of the court about the repressive nature, condemning those who practise repression in their countries and then attempt to take advantage of independent courts in democratic countries- an implicit reference to the behaviour of Rif’at al-Asad.
It is also worthy to note that the president of SHRC participated in the court sessions as a witness for the defendant, and the responses of the lawyers of Rif’at al-Asad was not to deny the massacre but rather to claim that Rif’at was a soldier implementing the orders he was issued with.
SHRC has also obtained a special testimonial in which, for the first time, Rif’at al-Asad confirms his knowledge of the massacre and attempts to deny his participation in giving orders and instructions. After the defection of the Syrian vice president, Abdul Haleem Khaddam, which took place in 2006, Rif’at al-Asad sent an envoy to the “Salvation Front” which had been formed, asking to join. The envoy met with a member of the opposition in the Front, who replied with questions to Rif’at, one of them being that Rif’at al-Asad should clarify his responsibility of Tadmur massacre. The envoy returned with a message from Rif’at in which he said that he was not responsible for the massacre, and that Hafiz al-Asad had called him on the day of the massacre but he did not respond. Hafiz then called the leadership of His Defence Brigades and asked them to attack Tadmur prison and kill all Muslim Brotherhood detainees. The member of the Front then asked that Rif’at al-Asad announce this matter publically, however Asad replied that doing so would have a negative impact inside Syria.
2.Academic and Human Rights Documentation
Tens of books and studies prepared by authors well known for their neutrality, or even at times their sympathy with the Asad regime, have documented the massacre, in addition to several human rights organisations.
The following are examples of these documentations:
Asad: the Struggle for the Middle East, Patick Seale documents in his book on Assad the massacre based on testimonials from the Syrian regime detainees in the case of attempt of assassinating the Jordanian Prime Minister Mr. Madar Badran in addition to the massace of Hama and other massacres (see page 532 in the Arabic edition and page 329 in the English).
It is known that Seale became close to the late president Hafiz al-Asad, and this relationship remained close until the death of Asad in 2000. Asad had allowed Seale to access his family and personal archives so that the composed book would be the largest and most popular reference on him.
In his book, “The struggle for power in Syria”, Nikolaos Van Dam documented the Tadmur massacre. He also elaborated on the issue of sectarian divisions and the criminality of Rif’at al-Asad’s methods. Van Dam was the Dutch ambassador to Egypt, and later served as the Dutch Foreign minister. He is an internationally known academic and historian.
The Middle East Watch also documented the massacre, in addition to a large number of massacres of the eighties, as did Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
3.Witnesses from Tadmur
Prior to 2011, it was impossible to discuss witnesses of any crimes committed by the Syrian regime in the eighties as witnesses wouldn’t come forward out of fear of the oppression they would face by the security apparatus, which was practised across Syria. In 2002, Syria did not allow any witnesses to travel to the French court case of Nizar Nayouf.
However, following 2011 and the loss of regime control over many areas in Syria, opportunities to reach witnesses to prove the realities of these crimes have been made available.
Today, hundreds of ex-detainees who were in prison before the massacre took place, or who arrived after it had ended, can be found. Their testimonials are proof that the massacre took place.
4.Witnesses of Defence Brigade members arrested in Jordan
The attempted assassination of the Jordanian Prime Minister by members of the Defence Brigade turned into a pivotal moment in which the events of the Tadmur massacre began to be revealed and documented. The assassination attempt in itself is also another one of Rif’at’s crimes, although he failed in its execution.
Ahmed Iskandar Ahmed, the Syrian information minister, clarified this to the Washington Post on 16/2/1981, as did the press release issued by a security source in Damascus on 24/2/1981 which mentioned that “Damascus gave itself the right to commit such an act.”
On 31/1/1981, the Jordanian authorities arrested the colonel Adnan Kamal Barakat (whom Rif’at al-Asad had closen to lead the assassination team), driver George Abdu, Corporal Akram Ali Jameel Beishani, and Sergeant Eesa Ibrahim al-Fayaadh.
After their interrogation, it became clear that two members of the group had participated in the Tadmur massacre. The Jordanian Television aired their confessions, which were then given out in small booklets as part of a “Jordanian archive” series being produced by the Ministry of Information.
SHRC Renews Accusation
SHRC repeats its accusation of Rif’at al-Asad- considering that he was the leader of the Defence Brigades in 1980- of committing the Tadmur prison massacre and the participation of his forces in the crimes Syria was witnessing at the time, the most prominent of which was the Hama massacre, committing aggressions against public liberties, forcibly tearing out the headcovers of women in Syrian cities, and especially in Damascus, as well as other dangerous violations. SHRC is also prepared to defend itself legally, if Rif’at al-Asad and his sons- as is their habit- deny this. SHRC is also prepared to confirm the above in a public debate in front of an audience if Rif’at and his sons do not wish to go to court.
SHRC also deplores the manner in which the media and political institutions in European countries and the USA have been dealing with Rif’at al-Asad as if he is a possible political solution. This is instead of admitting him to court for the crimes he committed and for the money he took with him from Syria which he had collected in an illegal manner when he was vice president of the country.