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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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”