Damascus Centre For Theoretical

and Civil Rights Studies.


Palmyra: From an Oasis to a Barbaric State


The Syrian people boast one of the oldest civilizations. Throughout history, their civilization was very prosperous. They left a legacy to the whole of humanity. The Syrian made multiple contributions to the development of the humanity, these contributions include, but certainly are not limited to, the discovery of agriculture and the first alphabet in the history of mankind.  The Syrians left a special touch on all what surrounds them creating their own world uniquely characteristic to Syria.

The Syrian have their daily life laws and the morality drawn from the religious legislation, which was the result of the meeting of many civilizations in Greater Syria or “El Cham”.

Palmyra or (Tadmur in Arabic) rose to existence as a flare of civilization in this humanitarian and advanced context. This special position of Tadmur was the result, of the brave resistance to the Roman Empire’s aggression against the Orient. Palmyra had the heroic Queen Zenobia, who was aware of the civilised role of her people in resisting the Roman Empire.

By tradition, Plamyra with its ancient civilizations presents a magnificent picture of the Syrian life. Yet, this has not been the case over the past three decades, particularly for the Syrian people. The West knows Palmyra as an ancient oasis of civilization.  But, Plamyra is horrifying in the minds of the Syrians nowadays.  Palmyra, to Syrians, has become associated with the most notorious prison in modern Syria, the Tadmur Prison.  Palmyra represents a mass grave for those brave and patriotic souls searching for freedom and struggling against a repressive and brutal regime. The repression and unlimited brutality at Tadmur Prison cannot be described adequately in words.

Prisons in Syria are numerous, and varied in capacity and circumstance of brutality.  They have become a grim phenomenon of modern Syrian life perpetuated by a brutal regime. This regime started with the cease of power by Al Baath Arab Socialist Party, which made prisons in Syria like death from which no one can escape.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement disconnected the Syrian society and the government alike in the early 1980s. With this rise, came to prominence the name of the notorious Palmyra Prison, the “Tadmur Prison”. Before 1980, the prisoners were made up mostly of military personnel who violated military rules or were punished for misdemeanor, such as absconding or other serious crimes.

With the increasing military activity of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement and the political and social turmoil that abound in the country, Palmyra shifted from a mere prison to a demonic place that operated outside any human norms.   It was associated with the first bloody and grisly massacre committed by the Syrian regime. This massacre was in retaliation for failed assassination attempt on the life of late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad in June 1980. Some of his own guard tried to kill him while he was coming out of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus’s Old City. [All the guards were executed indiscriminately without trials.] A few days of the assassination attempt, the regimes numerous security agencies committed the largest massacre of its kind in Syria’s modern history with the exception of Hama’s massacre. According to personal testimonies, hundreds to thousands of unarmed people were killed in cold blood. Units of the elite Defence Brigades gathered unarmed prisoners and shot them in the back of their heads and buried them in mass graves that remain secret until today. This elite Defense Brigades was under the direct supervision of Hafez Al Assad’s brother and partner in power Rifa’at Al Assad. Rifa’at Al Assad lives a very lavish life in Europe nowadays.

The massacre was repeated several times in June 1980 when hundreds of prisoners were shot in the back of their heads and were buried silently by bulldozers without their mothers being able to shed the tears on them and without tombstones. This is how Palmyra Prison became one of the most notorious prisons in the world.  Much like the Nazi concentration camps.

Syrian prisons commenced their modern era when groups of political prisoners started arriving at Palmyra Prison in early eighties. Estimates in 1984 put the number of political prisoners at 14,000, at the time when the total Syrian population numbered around 14 million, making the ratio of political prisoners to the total population at 1/1,000. Moreover, these estimations ignored the temporary detentions.

The major political streams of the political prisoners included the Muslim Brotherhood Movement, the Pro-Iraqi Al Baath Arab Socialist Party, the Syrian Communist Party-Politburo and its allies the National Democratic Congress, Al Nasseri Popular Organisation- Socialist Union, the Workers Revolutionary Party, Communist Action Party, the Popular Committees, the Popular Committees, the Committees for the Defence of Political Liberties in Syria, and any opposition to the policies of the ruling regime. There were many prisoners of non-Syrian origin such as Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Algerian and Sudanese nationals.

The following is a description of Palmyra Prison according to the testimonies of prisoners who spent ten years or more detained inside the prison. The prison looks like a housing complex of two divisions, one for military prisoners who committed some misdemeanors during their military service and one for political prisoners, who are the topic of this article.

Although the management is the same for both, the two divisions are separated from each other. The prison is supervised by the Military Police and agents from different security departments including the Military Security Service, Political Security Service, State Security Department, Air Force Intelligence Service as well as the most ill-famed Colonel Faisal Ghanem who was tried in a field martial court. Ghanim supervised the prison for many years since 1979.

The prison consists of complex of buildings separate from one another to make their supervision easier and to prevent prisoners from free communication. Each building has two dormitories, one small and one large with solitary confinement cells and a small uncovered yard for breaks when prisoners were allowed to leave their dormitories. These yards have high walls and electrified barbed wire.

The Large Dormitory: The same conditions apply to the small dormitory but with a difference in the day-to-day life routine. The dormitory is a 40-50 square metre room (12 m by 4.5 m), originally built for around eighty prisoners although it typically housed many more. The dormitory is built three to four steps below the ground level and have no windows except a round window in the ceiling covered with metal bars. The warden, usually a heavily armed military policeman, looks inside the dormitory through this window. The dormitory also has one water closet and a small corridor near the bathroom.

About ten cells lie in the back of the dormitory for solitary confinement. Each one of these cells looks like a stony casket measuring 2 m by 0,70 m without a water-closet, ventilation, lights, or seats.  There is a small slit at the bottom of the door, which opens only when a prisoner is given food or water if allowed.

Shortly before their arrival at the town of Palmyra, prisoners are blindfolded.  The thickness of the blindfold varies from one prisoner to another. In some cases, it is ten layers thick and the prisoner is ordered to wear it when a prison official comes so that he cannot see who is torturing him.

On arrival at the prison, as a “welcoming gesture”, prisoners are tied to an old tire and whipped with 400 lashes. The whip is made of four copper cables twined together. After this brutal ritual, a prisoner’s mustache is plucked, as if to take away the last sign of his oriental manhood. From then on, he will be treated as an insect that deserves to be trodden by shoes. Following this, the prisoners who can tolerate more torture (according to the wardens’ judgment) are divided and unleashed upon by “expert wardens” for more torture, while the prisoners who have become marginally broken are sent directly to the dormitories.

A prisoner’s daily activities of living become an everyday routine of torture and humility. During trips to the water closet the prisoner will receive countless number of lashes from 10 wardens standing over the level of the prisoners’ heads.  Those who walk slower receive most of the lashes.

The same method of torture is applied during the weekly trip to the bathroom. During the bathroom trip, they give each prisoner a small amount of sulfate. Then they shave the heads and beards with a blunt razor. The sulfate is used only as a disinfectant to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. After the shaving, prisoners are splashed with cold water to clean their dirty bodies.  Then they will return to their cells or dormitories.

Only those prisoners who would be executed would be called by their names by the wardens. When a prisoner is called by his name, this means, according to prison rules, that his end has come and he will be taken to stand in front of the execution squad. His friends, who are close-by, will hear the firing of the guns, which marks the end of another life.

Those who are destined to spend their time in the dormitory get one blanket and a thick cloth under them when they go to sleep. The space is so tight the prisoners can muster only to sleep on their sides. They have to go to sleep sharply at nine o’clock p.m. and awake by seven o’clock a.m.  The prisoners have to wrap their blankets and the thick cloth in the morning, and set on them with their legs tied close under their thighs.  It is prohibited to walk inside the dormitory except to the water closet.

When a voice is heard in the dormitory, a warden throws a piece of wood on the floor and the one who made that voice has to pick up the piece and get out of the dormitory by seven in the evening.  He will then be punished with 200 lashes.

Often, a prisoner will randomly be picked and appointed as the chief prisoner in each dormitory. His main role is to name prisoners who make noises in the dormitory.  He will be punished if he fails to name the prisoner who made the noise or if that prisoner has a weak body.

Daily life in the prison is monotonous, boring, killing and inhumane. Torture starts shortly after wake-up time and ends at bedtime. The day starts with tidying the blanket, cleaning the dormitory, the water closet and the bathroom. This is followed by breakfast time, then cleaning the dishes and throwing the garbage.

When the prison’s management allows prisoners a break, they go out for half an hour to an uncovered yard that is similar to the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Prisoners have to walk in circles and keep silent with their heads down since prison rules do not allow prisoners to look at the wardens or the prison officials.

Food is given to prisoners at ten in the morning and its consists of three small loaves of flat bread as a daily ration with a little amount of yogurt, potatoes, jam and olives for breakfast and dinner. Food rations are not enough to feed more than a quarter of the prisoners in every dormitory.

Lunch consists of burghul (cooked crushed wheat) or rice with a reddish liquid that does not contain any vegetables or meat. Apart from the bad preparation of food, it is always cold which causes the prisoners many health problems such as heartburn that may develop into a permanent ulcer in the stomach.

Other common illnesses in the prison include chronic constipation, heartburn, stomach ulcers, colitis, skin diseases, prostatitis, anemia, malnutrition, eye diseases, psychological, and neurological disorders as well as paralysis or numbness in the limbs due to the torture during the initial interrogation or loss of a sense mostly hearing.

Many prisoners suffer from deep laceration to the feet and legs and deformities in nails and feet. The torture by electrocution or other means will leave scars and chronic bruises; often they target the genitals.

Prisoners at Palmyra Prison also become victims of sexual assault through brutal rape or sodomy, such as inserting glass bottles into the rectums.

Rules at this notorious prison do not allow doctors to visit prisoners and prisoners are not allowed to call for a doctor, this is punished by 200 lashes.

Medicines and family visits are not allowed at the prison, except some isolated cases when families pay large bribes to the prison officials. It has been reported that Director of Palmyra Prison Faisal Ghanim will allow ten minutes visits after his mother had received a piece of jewellery worth tens of thousands of Syrian pounds from the prisoner’s family.

Family members of the prisoners usually become victims of extortion by the prison official.  Many families are asked to pay thousands of Syrian pounds in forms of bribes to prison officials or “a big government official” just to now what was the fate of their relative.

The following are some of the names of prisoners who lived with me at Palmyra Prison for 13 years and waiting for your support in pressurising the Syrian government to release them:

1- Abdullah Qabbarah, Syrian Communist Party-Politburo, jailed since 1987 and sentenced for a 15-year jail term by the Supreme State Security Court and expected to be released by 2002. He is suffering from anemia, diabetes and acute psychological and neurological disorders.

2- Aram Karabet, Syrian Communist Party-Politburu, jailed since 1987 and sentenced to 13-year jail term by the Supreme State Security Court. He is expected to be released 2000. He is suffering from psychological disorders.

3- Ammar Rizq, Communist Action Party, jailed since 1992 and sentenced to a 12-year jail term by the Supreme State Security Court. He is expected to be released 2004. He is suffering from acute heart problems and respiratory system disorders. His overall general health condition is very critical.

4- Mazin Shamseen, Communist Action Party, jailed since 1992 and sentenced to a 15-year term by the Supreme State Security Court. He is expected to be released 2007 and is suffering from nervous tension and arthritis.

5- Juryus Al Talli, Communist Action Party, jailed since 1992 and sentenced for a 15-year old term by the Supreme State Security Court. He is expected to be released 2007.  He is suffering from arthritis, weak limbs and acute nervous disorders.

6- Mahmoud Eassa, Communist Action Party, jailed since 1992 and sentenced to a 10-year term by the Supreme State Security Court. He is expected to be released 2002 and he is suffering from stomach pain and acute psychological disorders.

7- Nu’man Abdou, Communist Action Party, jailed since 1992 and sentenced to a 12-year term by the Supreme State Security Court. He is expected to be released 2004. He is suffering from a rupture in the knee and a bleeding wound in his right leg that is paralyzed from the knee down.

These prisoners were arrested by the Political Security Department and spent periods of their jail terms at Adra Prison in Damascus before being transferred to Palmyra Prison on December 12, 1995.

So far all of them have been denied family visits, money or health care. They are suffering from extremely harsh living health and psychological conditions, as described by the last prisoner released from Palmyra Prison. He is Palestinian journalist Salameh George Keileh who spent eight years in that prison.

It is noteworthy that most prisoners are not released at the end of their jail terms, sometimes, as in the case of prisoner Yasseen Al Haj Saleh, they spend an additional year at the end of their terms behind bars.

The current director of the prison Colonel Nedhal Mahmoud carried out repressive measures and reneged on promises to allow family visits to prisoners.

Let us all raise our voices aloud to end this tragic chapter and call for the immediate closure or destruction of this prison, which remains as a mark of disgrace in the face of the Syrian regime.

Let us call for the release of all political prisoners or make them stand before a fair civil court.

Let us call for political liberties as guaranteed by the Syrian constitution, and work hard for the revival of political life and open all files before the people, particularly the settlement project according to the American-Israeli conditions.

Let us call for democratic freedom to be carried out in all national parties as the first step to overcome the social, economic and political disintegration of the Syrian society.

Majid Hibbou