Report Claims 'Systematic Torture And Killing' By Syrian Regime

Jan 21, 2014
Originally published on January 21, 2014 5:55 pm
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A prominent team of war crimes prosecutors has released a harrowing report, saying it's reviewed what it calls clear evidence of systematic torture and killing by the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The report is based on tens of thousands of carefully catalogued government photographs that show the bodies of some 11,000 Syrian detainees.

And we should warn listeners that some of the descriptions that follow are graphic and may be distressing. Most of the victims are young men. The corpses show signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, some had no eyes.

David Crane is one of the report's authors. He's former founding chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. And he joins me now. Professor Crane, welcome to the program.

DAVID CRANE: Thank you.

BLOCK: As you reviewed these photographs, tens of thousands of photographs, can you describe just a bit more of the injuries that you were seeing and your reaction?

CRANE: Well, as we reviewed the photographs, we saw clear evidence of pain and suffering almost beyond description. These 11,000 human beings were starved, beaten, tortured in ways that, frankly, are really not describable on this program. And then they were killed. And this was photograph after photograph after photograph, really indicating a systematic governmental approach to the destruction of all of these human beings in these three detention facilities that they came from.

BLOCK: And the starvation that you're describing, the images that I've seen - and there were just a few of them - the bodies were skeletal.

CRANE: Well, you know, if you look at them it's almost like you're looking at the scenes from the end of World War II in Auschwitz and Dachau and other of those concentration camps. And then throughout their starvation period, it appeared that they had been beaten and tortured in very, very sadistic ways before they were finally executed on orders of the authorities.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the source of many of these photographs. It's a confidential source who told you he was a military police photographer in Syria, working for the Assad regime - he said for 13 years before he defected. And these pictures were smuggled out of the country. What did he tell you about why he was photographing these bodies?

CRANE: Well, it was his job. He was doing that routinely. His job was to forensically take pictures of dead bodies. When the civil war began, that increased to almost 50 per day. He and his team continue to take photographs. But he also signaled he began to see the significance of this and in the way the bodies were coming in, far different than just deceased individuals. And he signaled to the resistance that I have a possibility of sending these photographs out.

They contacted him. He was assigned essentially a case officer. He was in some ways an asset. And he agreed to make duplicate copies through a memory stick all the photographs for a period of almost two years.

BLOCK: And why was the Syrian regime photographing these victims?

CRANE: Well, that's an excellent question. You know, you always scratch your head, you know, why did the Nazis record the deaths and names of all of the people that they did? Well, it's very bureaucratic. It's very industrialized. Not only were they marked forensically with a number but also the intelligence service had a number and there was also a processing number.

But they wanted to show death, certificates of death, and let the family know that their family member had been deceased. Usually the cause and manner of death was either a heart attack or a respiratory distress.

BLOCK: You had forensic scientists look at these images. And you had experts look to make sure that they weren't digitally altered. It was up to you to make sure that this source, this defector, was credible. Is there any question in your mind about what he was presenting to you?

CRANE: None whatsoever. You know, he was initially assessed and then we went through and then did the final assessment over a period of days. And he and his handler came across as extremely credible. You have to understand that the members of the team had decades of experience of international prosecution and the forensic team equally experienced.

BLOCK: As a former war crimes prosecutor, were you looking at these photographs as possible evidence that could be introduced at a war crimes trial, if there were to be one, for President Bashar al-Assad?

CRANE: Oh, absolutely. You know, it's a rare thing. It's been since Nuremberg that we've had this quantified, specific, systematic documentation of the deaths of human beings. This is incredible, important, specific evidence that I could get a conviction on beyond a reasonable doubt in a fair and open trial, this particular charge of starvation and torture of these detainees.

BLOCK: Professor Crane, the report that you did was commissioned, as I understand it, by a London firm acting for the government of Qatar. Qatar supports and arms the Syrian rebels, is trying to bring down the Assad regime. Is that problematic for the credibility of your findings?

CRANE: Well, it's a fair question and no, it's not. Because, at the end of the day, you have to look at the caliber of team, the questions that were asked. We had no association with the government. Our agreement was very, very specific as to the credibility of the source and the evidence that he brought up. We did that without any kind of agenda, without any kind of specific understated conclusion. In fact, we would not have stood for it. Our reputations are intact on this report and that we found - had no real association with the government of Qatar.

We handed our report into the London solicitors (unintelligible) and what they chose to do with it was their decision. But we are confident in the forensic science, as well as the legal conclusions that have been made related to this horror story.

BLOCK: David Crane, thank you for talking with us today.

CRANE: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Former war crimes prosecutor David Crane, part of the team that investigated photographs showing the deaths of thousands of detainees in Syria. Professor Crane teaches at the Syracuse University College of Law. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.