Tadmor Prison was situated in the deserts of eastern Syria, roughly 200 kilometres north-east of Damascus. The facility was initially built by the French Mandate forces after World War One to be used as military barracks, but when it was handed over to the Syrian Government, it quickly became known as Tadmor Prison.
Tadmor is renowned as one of the worst prisons in the world, and its reputation of abuse, torture and neglect has caused much concern for human rights activists.
Throughout the 1980’s, Tadmor Prison held thousands of political and civilian Syrian prisoners, and are known to have inflicted a great amount of suffering on these inmates. During these periods, it was known for its harsh conditions, excessive torture and summary executions. The Syrian poet Faraj Bereqdar, who was held as a political prisoner at Tadmor for five years, labelled the prison as a “kingdom of death and madness.”
Prisoners were subjected to medieval forms of torture and execution, such as being dragged to death or being cut into pieces by an axe. Whilst such acts frequently occurred as a result of some form of insubordination, prisoners were often selected at random, to keep them in a perpetual state of fear.
The 1980 Massacre
At 6.30am on 27th June 1980 commando forces from the Defence Brigades and the 138th Security Brigade were helicoptered to Tadmor Prison, where they shot and killed over 500 prisoners, most of whom were in their cells and dormitories. The massacre occurred the day after a failed assassination attempt was carried out on President Hafez al-Asad by the Muslim Brotherhood. Reports indicate that the attack was ordered by Rifa’al Assad, the brother of the President Hafez al-Asad as revenge on the failed attempt.
The team of soldiers arrived at the prison and were split up into groups. They were ordered to kill every prisoner in sight, regardless of if they were a part of the Muslim Brotherhood or not. Whilst the official death count stands at 500 inmates, survivors claim that number to be much higher. Bara Sarraj, the author of ‘From Tadmor to Harvard’, and prisoner at Tadmor for nine years explained that the prison was separated into two sections, the old building which was built by the French in the 1930s, and the new building which was built by Assad in the 1970s. Whilst the new section was allocated to the general population, members of the Muslim Brotherhood were held in the old building. They were housed in a set of 24 rooms, each with enough room for 100 prisoners, and filled the old building, indicating that there was a total of 2,400 prisoners.
According to Sarraj, no prisoner records are kept, so even the prison officials do not really know how many prisoners they have had, nor how many have died. He went on to describe his time at the infamous prison:
“Tadmor has no trace of life,” he said, noticeably switching to the present tense. “There are no books, no radios, nothing. They don’t even have salt to spray over your food. Sometimes there are no needles to sew our clothes. It’s indescribable, and the constant torture, that was unique to that place. At all times, even during the night.”
According to the testimony of former inmates, the section of the building which used to hold civilian political prisoners, contains forty-two dormitories and seven small cells which each situated next to a courtyard. Five of the seven courtyards are covered overhead by barbed wire to prevent escape, and the mixing of prisoners.
Dormitory Four is the largest dormitory, and was once used as a theatre during the times when the building was occupied by the French. “It still has the stage,” claims one former prisoner. Dormitory Four held between 200 and 250 men, who were forced to spend their time in cramped, unsavoury conditions and daily beatings took priority.
Arrest and Detention
During the 1980s, thousands of people were arbitrarily arrested and brought to Tadmor in suspicion of being connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of these men were named during interrogations, and were held together in segregated dormitories away from the adult population. According to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood sources, a total of 932 students between the ages of 16 and 20 were imprisoned during the 1980s, and could possibly be still alive and held captive as of January 1995. Up to 600 political prisoners were released from the prison in March 1995, but the Syrian authorities have refused to publish the list of names.
Thousands of Civilian political prisoners were tried and sentenced at Tadmor by military field courts during the 1980s. The majority of these ‘trials’ lasted minutes, and gave no opportunity for the prisoner to defend himself. The standard trial consisted of the accused being asked his name and informed that he has been found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The inmate would then be retuned to his cell to carry out his life sentence. Hundreds of prisoners were found to be innocent, but the result was the same as a guilty verdict; they were taken back to their cells to live out their life behind bars. Others would be put to death, and were taken to one of the Courtyards to be hacked into pieces, or hanged.
The inmates at Tadmor Prison during the 1980s were subjected to constant torture and cruelty, particularly those who were known or suspected to be Islamists. Such inmates were singled out from the general population and received the most brutal forms of torture available at the facility. Whenever a Muslim Brotherhood member left his dormitory, he never knew if he would make it back alive, as many prisoners were selected at random and beaten and tortured. Courtyard Five was used specifically as the punishment courtyard, where prisons would be whipped until they could no longer walk.
Upon arrival, new prisoners were brought to Courtyard One where they would be brutally beaten with pieces of wood or large metal pipes. This form of reception was a common occurrence during the bringing of the 1980’s, and lasted for hours. A former inmate informed Amnesty International:
“Everyone was in a bad condition, their legs bleeding and covered with wounds, as were other parts of their bodies. The pain was very intense, and none of the prisoners was able to stand up as a result….Some of the prisoners died during the reception.”
Such brutality continued onto the late 1980’s, with new inmates being beaten, searched and had their hair shaved off. They were then suspended in tires and whipped continuously until it was time to send them to their dormitories. Prisoners were said to have been in such a bad condition after their initial beating that many of them were unable to move for the following week.
Life in Tadmor
Prisoners were allowed to leave their dormitories for thirty minutes a day for fresh air and exercise in the courtyards. This was the only time the prisoners were permitted to be out of their cells without a blindfold on, but they were still subjected to random beatings and whippings from the guards on watch.
When prisoners were interrogated, they were either blindfolded or had a hood placed over their heads to prevent other prisoners seeing their faces. During the interrogation, the inmates were subjected to a range of torturous acts, mainly involving whipping until they confessed to whatever crime they were accused of.
In an attempt to disrupt inmate solidarity, prison guards often forced prisoners to inform on their cell mates. If they refused, they would be whipped and beaten so severely that many died during their punishment. A former inmate told the Human Rights Watch that inmates in overcrowded dormitories were forced to sleep only on one side of their body during the night. In the morning, the guards would ask the prisoner who they put in charge of the dormitory to give them 10 names of the prisoners who had not slept in accordance with the rules. If the inmate refused, he would be beaten, probably to death. However, if they gave a list of ten names, each of those men would be beaten and also probably killed.
The bodies of those who were executed or died during interrogation were not returned to their families, but buried in a valley close to the prison. The bodies were transported to the valley known as Wadi al-Kils by trucks and dumped in mass graves. The location was not meant to be known by the inmates, but the information was leaked out by a military officer whose job it was to dispose of the deceased.
Closure and Re-opening
Tadmor Prison was closed in 2001, and all the remaining inmates were transferred to other facilities in Syria. However, the prison was re-opened in June 2011 when 350 people were arrested for the participation in anti-government demonstrations. They were all transferred to Tadmor for interrogation and detainment.
The Syrian authorities refuse to grant entry to any human rights groups, whether it be domestic or foreign. Because of this, the details known of Tadmor are scarce and reliant solely on survivor testimonies, which are also rare.
21/05/2015 – Islamic State to Open Doors
Following the Islamic State attack on the ancient town on Palmyra, now known as Tadmor, supporters have released images of Tadmor Prison, claiming to have opened the facility’s doors.
Whilst the images date back to 2008, they were posted online by IS supporters, along with photographs of the dismembered bodies of Tadmor residents from the Shaitat tribe. The tribe rebelled against the Islamic State in December 2014, but has now been obliterated in what is now being labelled the ‘bloodiest massacre” committed by the group in Syria. The advance on the town came after President Assad withdrew from the area, leaving the Islamic group in control of 50% of Syrian territory.
The town is home to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, which now lies in the custody of IS. Many experts and resident alike fear for the preservation of the ruins, yet the reports of IS now controlling Tadmor prison is spreading fear across Syria and it’s neighbouring countries.
Since the reopening of the prison in 2011, the Syrian government have been extremely secretive regarding the detainees. However, local activists claim that it contained thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were reportedly transferred to an army base and given weapons to fight against IS.
Many experts claim that the taking of Tadmor prison could be a strategic plan for IS, who are likely to release the remaining prisoners to join forces with them against the Syrian government.
Nadim Houry, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Beirut office claimed: “In another context the capture of Tadmor prison would have been cause for celebration,” he told Middle East Eye. “The fact that it has fallen into the hands of another cruel group encapsulates the Syrian tragedy today. Syrians are stuck either between the cruelty of the Assad regime and that of IS.”
06/06/2015 – Tadmor Prison is Demolished
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have confirmed that on 30 May 2015, the Islamic State group militants have detonated explosives and destroyed the notorious Tadmor prison:
“ISIS has detonated the prison of Tadmor in east of Homs, where it planted IEDs around and inside the prison causing to destroy wide parts of it.”
The remaining prisoners at the notorious facility have been freed before the demolition took place, leaving no known casualties during the explosions. Political experts claim that the demolition of Tadmor is a vital component of the group’s propaganda campaign against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
The prison was a representation of the brutality thrust upon those whom spoke out against the regime, and the demolition of such an iconic symbol places IS in a potentially favourable light with the local residents of Palmyra.