DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ Syrian President Bashar Assad has ordered that a notorious political prison be turned into a hospital, drawing praise Tuesday from former inmates as a sign of a new political relaxation.

``The country is heading toward political flexibility,'' said Munzir Mousli, who was imprisoned at Mezze prison from 1970 until 1975. Mousli is now a member of parliament.

Assad's order Sunday to convert the prison was his latest step toward easing political life in Syria. Soon after his July inauguration, Bashar Assad released about 30 opposition figures.

Last week, he signed an amnesty freeing some 600 political prisoners _ nearly half the estimated political prisoners in Syria.

He also has loosened restrictions on debate. Earlier this year, 99 Syrian intellectuals were able to issue a statement in Damascus appealing to the Syrian government to release all political prisoners and implement political reforms.

Syrians, particularly young Syrians, had looked to the 35-year-old Bashar Assad for reform after decades of autocratic rule under his father, the late Hafez Assad. The elder Assad had tolerated no dissent and clashed violently with Islamic extremists during his three decades in power.

Hafez Assad had ordered the closing of the two-story Mezze prison, and the inmates were moved to other facilities a few weeks before he died in June. The prison could hold up to 300 inmates.

It was not clear why the elder Assad closed down Mezze. Syrian newspapers have reported it was dilapidated and in need of major repairs.

Mousli said the hilltop prison overlooking Damascus was built by French colonialists in the 1920s, and after independence it was turned into a military prison and used mainly for political prisoners.

Mousli said he was jailed in a cell with 20 inmates and torture was routine, but ``ironically, some officials who ordered the jailing went to Mezze as prisoners after being toppled by their opponents.''

Yaqoub Kirro, 64, who spent three years in Mezze, from 1958 to 1961, said conditions were horrible.

``One of its cells was nicknamed 'the tomb' and another 'the putrid cell,' where political prisoners were routinely tortured,'' Kirro said.