Islamic State has released footage of Tadmor Prison, an infamous site in a Syrian city it recently captured from President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The prison is in the city of Palmyra, which ISIS fighters captured last week, became known for decades of harsh treatment of prisoners under the reign of Assad’s father Hafez, and was closed in 2001. It reopened 10 years later, after the start of Syria’s civil war.
Palmyra is also known for its 4,000-year-old ruin and a large number of ancient artifacts the Syrian government hastily packed up before ISIS took over the city. (RELATED: ISIS’ War On History Claims Precious 4,000-Year-Old City)
Tadmor’s prisoners included members of the Muslim Brotherhood, alongside anti-Syrian fighters captured in the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, political dissidents and students. Some were as young as 16 when they were imprisoned, and many were forced to serve full prison terms even after they were proven innocent.
Former prisoners at Tadmor have told harrowing stories about “torture, random beatings, eye-gouging, broken limbs and crushed fingers” at the site. Prisoners were executed daily, and their bodies left in open mass graves. After thousands of prisoners were killed in a political crackdown in 1980, personnel left their blood on the floor, which infected the surviving inmates with gangrene. (RELATED: Syria’s Assad Still Denies Killing Syrians, Says He Has ‘Public Support’)
Videos and still photos released online this week show Islamic State fighters rummage through the prison, which government officers abandoned as the jihadi group approached. The government also reportedly set prisoners free in the hours before ISIS’s takeover, trying to use them as soldiers of last resort.
Inside the prison, ISIS fighters show group and solitary confinement cells. An Arabic inscription on a group cell wall calls prison “preservation of the citizen’s dignity.”
Uncovering the indignities of Assad’s rule is a key component of Islamic State’s argument for legitimacy. In its own self-image, ISIS exists as an alternative to the unjust rule of secular despots across the Middle East and around the world. And on the battlefield, it benefits from Syria’s stalled four-year rebellion against Assad’s rule, and the incoherent Western response to violent tactics on both sides.
ISIS is using Assad atrocities to help minimize its own countless crimes against humanity and genocide against non-Muslims.
So far, the Islamic State has not demolished the priceless millennia-old ruin, as many had feared. Instead, they killed about 20 unidentified men by firing squad in its Roman-era amphitheater— footage it is likely to release soon in another video.