Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the “systematic killing” of about 11,000 detainees, three eminent international lawyers say.
The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to August last year.
Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.
The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.
The three lawyers interviewed the source, a military policeman who worked secretly with a Syrian opposition group and later fled the country and defected.
In three sessions in 10 days they found him credible and truthful and his account “most compelling.”
They subjected all evidence to rigorous scrutiny, according to their report, which has been obtained by the Guardian and CNN.
The authors are Desmond de Silva, Queen’s Counsel (QC), former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone; Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic; and Syracuse University College of Law professor David Crane, who indicted former Liberian president Charles Taylor at the Sierra Leone court.
The defector, who for security reasons is identified only as Caesar, was a photographer with the Syrian military police. He smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups, has called for the overthrow of al-Assad and demanded his prosecution for war crimes.
The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the UN, governments and human rights groups. Its publication appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.
Caesar told the investigators his job was “taking pictures of killed detainees.”
He did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture, but he did describe a highly bureaucratic system.
“The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention, their bodies would be taken to a military hospital, to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar’s function being to photograph the corpses,” the report says.
“There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph, which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse,” the report adds.
“The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First, to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second, to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out,” it says.