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Among Syrians, Palmyra is famous for a different landmark — its brutal prison

The militant group Islamic State captured the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria this week, raising concerns about the fate of its fabled ruins. (Reuters)
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The Islamic State's capture of the Syrian city of Palmyra has caused an international outcry. Around the world, people are deeply concerned about the pre-Islamic, Roman-era treasures located near the city, and there are deep fears about what the Islamic State might do to one of Syria's most important archeological sites.

But Palmyra's ancient ruins aren't the only site of historical importance in the area. There's another piece of history nearby, though it is far more modern: a prison considered one of the most brutal places in Syria.

Tadmur prison was originally built as military barracks for the French mandate forces in the 1930s. It became a military prison as Syria gained independence. In the late 1970s, large numbers of political prisoners began to be housed in the facility, and Tadmur gained a reputation for horror that bordered on legendary. Things were so bad that the prison even developed its own literature sub-genre, with those who made it out writing about their time in the prison, much like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the Soviet Union's gulags.

Faraj Bayrakdar, a Syrian poet who spent four years in the prison, once dubbed it a "kingdom of death and madness" and "a disgrace for the history of Syria and for all humanity."

Thousands of people were believed to be kept in the prison at its peak in the 1980s, and there were persistent reports of torture and death in the prison — a 2001 Amnesty International paper noted that the prison "appears to have been designed to inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners and to keep them under the strictest control by breaking their spirit." The same report notes that beatings and torture had been rife and often arbitrary – and that in the 1980s, guards seemed to have been given a license to kill the prisoners if they wished.

The prison's most notorious moment occurred in 1980, the day after an assassination attempt against President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current leader Bashar al-Assad. The elder Assad was locked in a battle with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood at the time, and the Brotherhood was immediately linked to the failed attempt on his life. Early on June 27, 1980, Assad's brother Rifaat al-Assad sent 60 soldiers to the Tadmur prison, which housed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The soldiers began killing prisoners with little discrimination. Estimates of the dead begin at 500, but Bara Sarraj, a former inmate and author of "From Tadmor to Harvard," told WorldViews that he thinks the real figure could be more like 2,400.

"The truth is — no one knows," Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division, said, explaining that families were often never told whether their loved ones were dead or alive, let alone how they died. Instead, the prisoners simply disappeared.

During the 1990s, the Syrian government gradually began to release prisoners, and after Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar, Tadmur prison was shut down in 2001. It was a hugely symbolic moment for the country, a hopeful sign that the worst excesses of the Assad regime were past, though it was never clear whether all the prisoners had been released, or whether some had been just transferred elsewhere. After the Syrian uprising began in 2011, there were multiple reports that the prison was reopened to house the regime's opponents (other Syrian prisons such as Adra, near Damascus, also have gained a reputation for extreme cruelty since 2011).

It's unclear how many prisoners are currently housed in the prison, or what has become of them since the Islamic State militant group took over Palmyra this week. Reports in Syrian media have suggested that residents of Palmyra have been evacuated, though some analysts point out that in the past the Syrian regime has executed prisoners as it has retreated in battle. An activist in Palmyra who uses the pseudonym Ahmed al-Homsi told The Post that the Islamic State — an al-Qaeda offshoot that is also known as ISIS or ISIL — had released the prison's inmates.

It would be hard to argue that Tadmur prison is the most important aspect of the Islamic State's takeover of Palmyra. Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on the Syrian conflict, says that although the prison remains of crucial importance for the Muslim Brotherhood community, the Islamic State does not have the same interest in the site.

"For them, Palmyra stands for a Syria that is pre-Islamic and pagan," Landis says, referring to the ancient ruins near the city. "ISIS seeks to destroy this past in order to make a modern statement about who will rule today and what is divine." Palmyra also has a variety of sites of strategic importance outside of the prison, such as other military structures and weapons depots.

However, the Islamic State certainly seems aware of the symbolic power of the prison. According to the Site Intelligence Group, the Homs division of the Islamic State released images of the apparently empty prison soon after taking over the site, and the group's supporters on social media have proudly proclaimed that they have "liberated" prisoners who had been detained for decades.

Among those who know the horrors of Tadmur, the situation is especially galling. "For someone who cares about human rights in Syria, what happened encapsulates the tragedy of what is happening in Syria today," Houry said, noting that families that lost loved ones to Tadmur are no closer to finding out what happened to them. One horror has simply been replaced by another.

For Sarraj, he's depressed that it took all this time for the international community to pay some attention to what was happening in Palmyra, where he was tortured for almost a decade. "It is very obvious that this world values only rocks, not humans," he says.

See also:

Why the ancient city of Palmyra, seized by the Islamic State, matters

Militants tighten grip on Palmyra, one of the Mideast’s most renowned sites

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