Former Syrian Strongman Jedid Dies in Prison After 23 Years
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) _ Former Syrian strongman Salah Jedid, one of the world’s longest-held political prisoners, has died after 23 years in captivity, friends said today.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, had campaigned without success for the release of Jedid, Syria’s effective ruler from 1966 until he was ousted by the current president, Hafez Assad, in 1970.
Jedid, 63, died Thursday of a massive heart attack in a Damascus hospital, a day after he was moved there from Mezze military prison outside the capital, said Hassan Khatib, a former member of Syria’s ruling Baath Party.
Khatib, a Jordanian who was once a member of the Baath’s regional command, was himself released from Mezze in June after more than two decades behind bars with Jedid.
Jedid, thrown in prison by Assad right after the bloodless 1970 coup, had been reported in poor health for some time.
Posters reporting his death were put up on streets in Damascus, the Syrian capital. But there was no official announcement by Assad’s regime.
In neighboring Jordan, an Arabic-language newspaper published mourning notices from six of his former cellmates, only recently released by Assad.
Jedid was buried Friday in his native village of Doueir Baabda, in northwestern Syria, Khatib and other sources said.
Assad’s government has systematically suppressed political dissent and detained without trial thousands of people under emergency laws.
Human rights groups say hundreds, possibly more, have died in prison, often from torture, or were executed.
Jedid died when it appeared he might be nearing release amid a gradual change in the political climate in Syria, which Assad has ruled with an iron hand for nearly 23 years.
In recent months, nine political prisoners rounded up immediately after the 1970 coup have been freed. They included several aging members of Jedid’s leftist faction of the Baath Party. Six other former senior officials arrested with Jedid remain imprisoned.
Assad unexpectedly freed 3,500 political prisoners in late 1991 and 1,000 were released last year.
Assad has increasingly aligned with the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria’s longtime ally. He is under pressure to curb human rights abuses and break with terrorist groups in return for economic aid.
Jedid’s fall from power began in September 1970, when he sent armored columns into neighboring Jordan to aid Palestinians fighting King Hussein.
Assad, then the air force commander, refused to provide air cover because he feared starting a conflict with Israel, which wanted to see the Palestinians crushed.
Hussein’s Arab Legion defeated the invading Syrians and Jedid was blamed for the debacle. Assad seized the opportunity to depose Jedid, then jailed him and his followers.
Jedid, began his political career in the 1950s, when as an army officer he joined a clandestine cell of the then-banned Baath Party and soon began playing a key role.
After a series of power struggles, Jedid, aided by Assad, led a coup on Feb. 23, 1966, that ousted a more moderate Baath Party faction.
He took no formal post in the new government - only the party post of assistant secretary-general of the Baath regional command - but effectively became the country’s strongman for the next four years.