Rifaat al-Assad, former commander of the Defence Brigades and perpetrator of the notorious Palmyra Prison Massacre on June 27 1980, alongside his brother and Hafez al-Assad, recently attended a polling station in Paris to cast his vote for his nephew, Bashar. Rifaat al-Assad has been living in exile in Europe after a break with his brother’s regime in 1984. It is speculated that his vote for his nephew, who has been ruling Syria tyrannically, is an attempt to heal the rift between them and perhaps in an effort go back to Syria and to escape the legal issues that pursue him in Europe; whether related to his corruption and violation of laws or related to his massacres and crimes against humanity in the 80s of the last century.
In the 80s of the last century, Syria witnessed a series of crimes against humanity, where thousands of Syrians were killed extrajudicially whilst thousands of others were forcibly disappeared; thousands were arrested without legal basis for pronlonged periods of time, as well as being subjected to brutal torture during arrests that led to a large number of deaths in custody.
The Palmyra Prison Massacre was one of the worst crimes committed in those years, as it targeted Defenceless detainees who had no involvement in crimes that legally allowed for their murder in cold blood inside their cells. On the other hand, the massacre reflected the diseased and destructive mentality of the Assad regime and its mafia-based psyche of revenge represented by its two heads: Hafez and Rifaat al-Assad. The detainees that were targeted and murdered in the massacre were not arrested on any legal basis in the first place, and had no charges proved against them according to any law, including the unjust laws of the Assad regime at the time, and yet were continuously subjected to arbitrary executions as per the testimonies of detainees who survived and wrote about their horrific ordeals after they were released from Palmyra Prison.
The massacre, being perpetuated against detainees in an inaccessible place in the middle of a desert, guarded by the fiercest of regime units in which nothing is known about those who enter it, could have gone completely unknown by the world for many years had it not been for the confessions of various militias from within the Defence Brigades. It so happened that the foriegn terrorism policy pursued by the Assad regime and lead by the Defence Brigades lead to the disclosure of the massacre upon the capture of Defence Brigades militias in Jordan, after the Assad regime’s attempted assasination of then Jordanian prime minister, Mudhar Badran. The unsuccessful assassination attempt led to the capture of militias from the Defence Brigades who confessed and provided detailed accounts of the massacre.
Despite the spread of news of the massacre and the evidence found by detainees who were admitted to the prison immediately after the massacre, as well as the confessions that were made by Rifaat in private gatherings which were leaked through various channels, as if to mock the events on 19/8/2015 in an interview with Giselle Khoury for the BBC, lawyer Ribal Rifaat Assad denied the massacre entirely. Ribal Assad further accused the head of the Syrian Humans Rights Committee (SHRC) in fabricating the massacre, but did admit to there being mass executions in Palmyra Prison based upon the statements of General Mustafa Tlass on 21/2/2005 to Susanne Koelbl of German magazine, Der Spiegel. In the interview, Tlass stated that he would sign 150 execution orders a week from Damascus, in the early 80s. Ribal used this as evidence to acquit his father from and blame his father’s rival in power, Mustafa Tlass, for the death caused, whilst in fact it is clear that they are all complicit in the blood spilled, corruption and crimes against humanity.
However, in a statement released on 12/9/2015, the Syrian Human Rights Committee reiterated their accusation of Rifaat Assad, commander of the Defence Brigades at the time, as the main perpetrator of the massacre. SHRC also reaffirmed their readiness to take to court for this accusation, and particularly since the emergence of new witnesses and their testimonies on what happened in the days before the massacre in the redistribution of prisoners across cells, according to their political categorisation. The testimonies also recount the arrival of planes to the prison, and the firing of bullets for a prolonged period of time inside the prison that day, and the blood that flowed from beneath the cell doors. Among the witnesses were those who had recorded their testimonies thoroughly in every detail, and those who had taken to satellite channels to speak; as well as former prison guards in Palmyra Prison who had defected from the regime at a later date, whose accounts corroborated the existing testimonies of what occurred that day. As such, the facts confirmed are that 800-1200 detainees in Palmyra Prison were shot in their cells on the morning of 27th June 1980, without crimes or offences charged against them.
Rifaat al-Assad and the other perpetrators have managed to escape accountability and punishment over the past 41 years thanks to the protection provided to them by various European countries in a blatant disregard for the basic human rights principles that they claim to uphold. This systematic policy of protection has contributed to the serious violations and crimes against humanity that Syria has witnessed over the last decade, under the rule of Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian Human Rights Committee, which has been of the first organisations to uphold the dossier of Palmyra massacre and the various other massacres perpetrated in similar fashion by the Assad regime, reiterate its unequivocal condemnation of this heinous massacre and of all massacres committed by the regime and its proponents. SHRC further condemns all extrajudicial detentions that continue to be practiced by the Syrian Intelligence Corpses, without judicial reference or oversight. SHRC demands the disclosure of the fate of those who disappeared in prisons since the 80s and demands the immediate release of all detainees who were arrested over the last 10 years of a popular revolution calling for freedom and dignity. Furthermore, SHRC demands the immediate cessation of arrests, enforced disappearance and torture. The dossier of aforementioned practiced by the Syrian regime will remain present as we will continue to demand accountability and justice from all those complicit in the crimes committed, until justice is served.
Syrian Human Rights Committee