Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New evidence of "industrial scale" murder and torture of prisoners by the Syrian regime

The constant reports of death, destruction, atrocities, displacement, and overall human misery in the ongoing Syrian catastrophe have become so routine, and for some people so overwhelming, that there is widespread temptation to tune out. That's especially true since it's hard to see the possibility of a non-awful solution, and the main concern that most Americans and other westerners have when they hear about Syria is to avoid getting mixed up in the whole mess. So they'd rather not hear about it.

That temptation is understandable, but it should be resisted.  This catastrophe won't simply go away if Americans and Europeans ignore it—and just leave it to Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and other countries actively backing different sides in the Syrian civil war. It's also important not to let the whole picture fade into an undifferentiated blur in which all the actors in this civil war are equally guilty, responsible, and appalling. A lot of them are guilty, responsible, and appalling—but in different ways, and to different degrees.

Let's consider mass atrocities in particular.  It has been clear for a while that forces on all sides of this complex and chaotic civil war, which increasingly includes foreign fighters as well as Syrians, have been committing war crimes and other atrocities.  Those are obviously difficult to monitor very precisely from the outside.  But according to the independent organizations that do try to monitor and assess such things, it would be misleading to simply assume that the Assad regime and the opposition are equally guilty.  For example, in May 2013 Human Rights Watch reported that " the regime was responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses since the fighting broke out."  So far, that still seems to be true.

Those crimes include include executions, massacres, the indiscriminate shelling and bombing of civilian areas, and efforts to starve populations  in rebel-held areas into submission.  Human Rights Watch and other organizations have also found widespread evidence of torture, an old specialty of the Assad regime that has escalated during the civil war. Apparently, the evidence of torture available to them was only the tip of the iceberg.

According to yesterday's report in the Guardian:
Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees, according to three eminent international lawyers.

The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to last August.

Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.

The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.

The three lawyers interviewed the source, a military policeman who worked secretly with a Syrian opposition group and later defected and fled the country. In three sessions in the last 10 days they found him credible and truthful and his account "most compelling".

They put all evidence under rigorous scrutiny, says their report, which has been obtained by the Guardian and CNN.

The authors are Sir Desmond de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.

The defector, who for security reasons is identified only as Caesar, was a photographer with the Syrian military police. He smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups, has called for the overthrow of Assad and demanded his prosecution.

The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the UN, governments and human rights groups. Its publication appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week's UN-organised Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.

Caesar told the investigators his job was "taking pictures of killed detainees". He did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture. But he did describe a highly bureaucratic system.

"The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar's function being to photograph the corpses … There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse," the report says.

"The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out."

Families were told that the cause of death was either a "heart attack" or "breathing problems", it added. "The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death.

"When the corpse was taken to the military hospital it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital. Once the bodies were photographed, they were taken for burial in a rural area."

Three experienced forensic science experts examined and authenticated samples of 55,000 digital images, comprising about 11,000 victims. "Overall there was evidence that a significant number of the deceased were emaciated and a significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects," the report says.  [....]

The inquiry team said it was satisfied there was "clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. It would support findings of crimes against humanity and could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime."

De Silva told the Guardian that the evidence "documented industrial-scale killing". He added: "This is a smoking gun of a kind we didn't have before. It makes a very strong case indeed."   [....]

Crane said: "Now we have direct evidence of what was happening to people who had disappeared. This is the first provable, direct evidence of what has happened to at least 11,000 human beings who have been tortured and executed and apparently disposed of. [....]

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch said his organisation had not had the opportunity to authenticate the images. But he added: "We have documented repeatedly how Syria's security services regularly torture – sometimes to death – detainees in their custody.

"These photos – if authentic – suggest that we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria's notorious dungeons. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and that is for the negotiating parties at Geneva II to grant unhindered access to Syria's detention facilities to independent monitors.
(The full report is here.)

Contrary to a suggestion in the opening sentence of this Guardian article, Assad and his foreign backers probably feel he has little cause to worry about ever facing war crimes charges.  Or, if anything, that hypothetical possibility is just one more factor that strengthens his determination to hold on to power at all costs.  Meanwhile, Assad and his apologists clearly believe that they can effectively exploit the anxieties of western countries by portraying the Syrian  regime as a bulwark against "terrorism"—and, unfortunately, there are enough grains of truth in that ultimately false picture to give this propaganda strategy some chance of success.  But we should not forget what kind of regime we are actually dealing with here.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  CNN's TV report, which includes some pretty horrifying photos, is here.

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