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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Emmanuel Macron's "moralisation of politics" comes at a heavy price for his allies

"Fake" jobs in French politics, season 3 episode 1.

Something is rotten in the state of France. No political party – at least none that existed before 2016 – seems immune to the spread of investigations into “fake” or shady parliamentary jobs. The accusations sank centre-right candidate François Fillon’s presidential campaign, and led to Marine Le Pen losing her parliamentary immunity in the European parliament (and proxy wars within her party, the National Front). Both deny the allegations. Now the investigations have made their way to the French government, led by Edouard Philippe, Emmanuel Macron’s Prime Minister.

On Wednesday morning, justice minister François Bayrou and secretary of state for European affairs Marielle de Sarnez announced their resignation from Philippe’s cabinet. They followed defence minister Sylvie Goulard’s resignation the previous day. The three politicians belonged not to Macron's party, En Marche!, but the centrist MoDem party. Bayrou, the leader, had thrown his weight behind Macron after dropping his own presidential bid in April.

The disappearance of three ministers leaves Emmanuel Macron’s cross-party government, which includes politicians from centre left and centre right parties, without a centrist helm. (Bayrou, who has run several times for the French presidency and lost, is the original “neither left nor right” politician – just with a less disruptive attitude, and a lot less luck). “I have decided not to be part of the next government,” he told the AFP.

Rumours had been spreading for weeks. Bayrou, who was last part of a French government as education minister from 1993 to 1997, had been under pressure since 9 June, when he was included in a preliminary investigation into “embezzlement”. The case revolves around whether the parliamentary assistants of MoDem's MEPs, paid for by the European Parliament, were actually working full or part-time for the party. The other two MoDem ministers who resigned, along with Bayrou, also have assistants under investigation.

Bayrou has denied the allegations. He has declared that there “never was” any case of “fake” jobs within his party and that it would be “easy to prove”. All the same, by the time he resigned, his position as justice minister has become untenable, not least because he was tasked by Macron with developing key legislation on the “moralisation of politics”, one of the new President’s campaign pledges. On 1 June, Bayrou unveiled the new law, which plans a 10-year ban from public life for any politician convicted of a crime or offence regarding honesty and transparency in their work.

Bayrou described his decision to resign as a sacrifice. “My name was never pronounced, but I was the target to hit to attack the government’s credibility,” he said, declaring he would rather “protect this law” by stepping down. The other two ministers also refuted the allegations, and gave similar reasons for resigning. 

Macron’s movement-turned-unstoppable-machine, En Marche!, remains untainted from accusations of the sort. Their 350 new MPs are younger, more diverse than is usual in France – but they are newcomers in politics. Which is exactly why Macron had sought an alliance with experienced Bayrou in the first place.

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