Syria: evidence of "systematic killing" of 11,000 detainees

Top lawyers say they have evidence that the Syrian government is responsible for crimes against humanity, but will these latest findings influence tomorrow's peace talks?

The Syrian government is responsible for the “systematic killing” of up to 11,000 detainees, according to a report compiled by three top international lawyers and former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone. The three legal experts have said their findings provide evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is guilty of crimes against humanity.

Their findings are based on 55,000 photographs provided by a Syrian defector who was responsible for photographing bodies taken to a military hospital after they had died in detention. The defector, referred to in the report as Caesar, says he never witnessed the executions himself (which the authors say strengthens his testimony, because if he was lying he might be tempted to say he was an eye witness). He was asked to photograph bodies to confirm that execution orders had been carried out, and so that death certificates could be signed without relatives seeing the bodies of the deceased.

Caesar says he photographed up to 50 bodies a day, evidence that the killings were “systematic”. There are limits to the forensic value of the photographs, the authors concede, as they were taken quickly and there are few close-ups, but experts found evidence of strangulation and beating. A sample of 150 images of individuals showed that 62 per cent were emaciated, suggesting that starvation might be used as a torture method. The images were overwhelmingly of young men, aged 20-40, who were either naked or partially clothed.

The original report here includes some graphic and distressing images, which support the comment made by one of the lawyers, QC Sir Desmond de Silva, that the levels of starvation was reminiscent of Nazi death camps.

There will undoubtedly be some scepticism over the findings. The report was funded by Qatar, who commissioned the law firm Carter Ruck. Qatar is one of the biggest funders and supporters of the Syrian opposition. But the eminence and profile of the three lawyers who wrote the report – as well de Silva, there’s Sir Geoffrey Nice, the chief prosecutor of Slobodan  Milosovic, ex-President of former Yugoslavia, and Prof David Crane, chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone – suggests that the evidence was properly scrutinised. Three such high profile lawyers are unlikely to compromise their integrity for a Qatari pay cheque.

The sheer volume of the photographs provided would be a huge photoshop job, and there’s little to suggest that Caesar’s credentials as a genuine defector were not properly examined. The top lawyers interviewed him over three days and found him to be a "truthful and credible witness" who, despite his opposition to the Syrian government, was neither "sensational" nor "partisan" in his reporting of the facts.

The bigger question is how much of an impact this report will have.  Its release was timed just before the Geneva II peace talks, which start tomorrow, in the hope is that it will influence negotiations. Syria shock stories have influenced the international community before: the chemical weapons deal followed from horrific images of the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta. The chemical weapons deal may not have had the affect many hoped, the UN estimates around 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, mostly by conventional weapons, but it did demonstrate that co-ordinated international action and game-changing negotiations are possible, especially if Russia is willing to co-operate.

I hope today’s report will help focus efforts to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.

One of the images viewed by international lawyers who believe the Syrian government is responsible for the systematic killing of detainees. Photo: Getty.

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

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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.