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.