The Times says Assad's snipers target unborn babies: but is this horrifying photo real?

Experts have raised doubts over a shocking image, used by the Times, purporting to show a foetus which has been shot in the womb.

On Saturday, the Times published a deeply disturbing account from a British surgeon, David Nott, who volunteered in a hospital in Syria and who said that snipers had been targeting pregnant women. According to Nott, the pregnant women he saw “were all shot through the uterus, so that must have been where they were aiming for”. The article claimed that one baby had a bullet in its brain, and an X-ray image accompanying the piece appears to show a foetus with a bullet just above its eye socket.

New Statesman was a little puzzled by the image – there seemed to be no damage to the baby’s skull and no visible entry wound. So I asked Igor Sutyagin, of the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank, to look at the image for me. Igor Sutyagin is a Research Fellow in Russia Studies at RUSI, has a physics background and researches anti-ballistic missile defence systems. He warned me that his conclusions are only tentative – he would need more time to investigate his suspicions before drawing firm conclusions. He did, however, have some doubts about the image.

Sutyagin flagged up that the bullet appeared slightly asymmetric, which “is impossible in the case of a real bullet”. Similarly “the brain is rather soft at that stage of foetus development – so it should be splashed about if bullet really strikes it [sic]” – instead the skull seems intact. He also points out that the foetus doesn’t appear to be in the right position if the X-ray was taken while the foetus was in the womb.

I called Syria Relief, the NGO that provided the Times with the photo. Yashar Kassar, the head of fundraising, said that the photo was taken in Aleppo by the Syria Relief media team that accompanied Dr Nott and others to the field hospital. “It is a real picture, taken by one of our team, and we can guarantee that,” he told me.

He added that Syria Relief also took a photo of the same baby after an operation to remove it from the mother’s womb, which he agreed to send to me. The photo is too graphic to post online, but it neither corroborates nor disproves the X-ray image above, as there is no evidence of any wound to the foetus’s forehead. It is on its side, so only the left hand side of its head is visible. There is a possibility that the bullet wound is obscured on the right-hand side of the baby’s head - although if that is the case, it would have made more sense for the photo to depict this. 

There isn’t sufficient evidence to come to a decisive conclusion either way. And in any case, even if the X-ray photo is not genuine, that does not mean Dr Nott’s testimony is false. And I certainly don’t want to generate the impression that atrocities aren’t being committed in Syria – it’s indisputable that the Syrian civil war has caused immeasurable human suffering. But it’s essential that journalists don’t suspend their scepticism when presented with these emotive and disturbing images.

This is important because both the Syrian government and opposition groups have been guilty of crimes against civilians, and both are taking their battles online, keen to influence international opinion in their favour. Unpicking the truth is even harder when journalists cannot operate safely in Syria. There have already been a number of slip-ups with misused images – including in 2012 when the BBC incorrectly used an image from the Iraq war in 2003, claiming it showed the bodies of children in Houla, Syria. It's vital to act with caution.

 

 

An image of an X-ray used by the Times, provided by the NGO Syria Relief, who say it shows an unborn baby that has been shot in the head. Image taken from Syria Relief's website.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times