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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle