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  • Gil Zohar

Caesar’s 55,000 atrocity photos ready for Syrian war crimes trial


JERUSALEM –

The UN in Geneva established a unit in February to prosecute war criminals who have committed atrocities during Syria’s six-year civil war. In the indeterminate future, should dictator Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for their crimes against humanity, the evidence assembled by Syrian war crimes division will include 55,000 grisly pictures taken by Caesar – the nom du guerre of a police photographer with the rank of sergeant who the Assad regime employed to record images of victims of state murder and torture.

Caesar grew up in a village near the southern city of Deraa where the civil war erupted in March 2011. Fearing for his life and the safety of his family, he defected from Syria four years ago, and remains living incognito. His video interview from an undisclosed location somewhere in Europe to Media Central in Jerusalem was repeatedly re-scheduled and finally cancelled over security fears. But the former photographer has previously explained how he secretly worked with the Syrian opposition group called the Syrian National Movement while "taking pictures of killed detainees" at the morgue at Tishreen military hospital and the Mezzeh military hospital, both in Damascus.

A long interview with Caesar appeared in The Guardian on Oct. 1, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/01/they-were-torturing-to-kill-inside-syrias-death-machine-caesar

Once a forensic investigator, Caesar said that when the Syrian uprising began, his duties changed to documenting the corpses of those killed in military prisons. “I had the job of taking pictures of the dead,” he said of the period from September 2011 to August 2013. Many of those images show corpses with signs of torture and starvation.

While not personally witnessing executions or torture, Caesar described a highly bureaucratic system of government-sanctioned murder. The corpses would then be buried in the desert east of Damascus, he said.

Caesar began secretly making duplicates of his photos. He transferred them on to USB sticks so that he could smuggle them out of his office, hidden in his shoes or his belt, and pass them to a friend who could get them out of the country to human rights groups abroad. After sharing tens of thousands of images, he feared for his safety, and was smuggled out of the country in August 2013.

Before Caesar, no insider had supplied evidence of the existence of the Syrian government’s death machine. His atrocity photos are damning.

Since defecting, Caesar has been a ferocious critic of Assad, decrying Damascus’s human rights abuses. His Facebook page Stand with Caesar: Stop Bashar al-Assad's Killing Machine, features Evan Mcullin’s TEDx talk at the London Business School “Why saying “never again” to genocide is not enough.”

Caesar features prominently in the 31-page, 2014 document formally titled A Report into the credibility of certain evidence with regard to Torture and Execution of Persons Incarcerated by the current Syrian regime. Popularly abridged to the Caesar Report, it details "the systematic killing of more than 11,000 detainees by the Syrian government in one region during period from March 2011 to August 2013.

Co-authored by British lawyers Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and American law professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court, the report was released on January 21, 2014, a day before talks were due to begin at the Geneva II Conference on Syria. It was commissioned by Qatar, which has been a key funder of Syrian rebels. After a six-month investigation, Human Rights Watch pronounced Caesar’s photo evidence genuine; in a report published on December 16, 2015, it said that Syrian officials should be tried for crimes against humanity.

According to a report by Amnesty International, published in November 2015, the Syrian regime has disappeared more than 65,000 people since the beginning of the civil war. According to a report in May 2016 by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), at least 60,000 people have been killed through torture or died from dire humanitarian conditions in government jails since March 2011. The authors of the report who interviewed Caesar found him credible and truthful and his account "most compelling" after subjecting it to "rigorous scrutiny".

With a brazen disregard for the facts that could be called Goebbelsian, Assad and the Syrian Solidarity Movement have disputed those photos as propaganda. The latter published The Caesar Photo Fraud that Undermined Syrian Negotiations: 12 Problems With the Story of Mass Torture and Execution in Syria. See https://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/CaesarPhotoFraudReport.pdf

Caesar mocks those who try to question his documentation of the Assad regime’s crimes, claiming the photos have been faked.

The website of the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees http://www.safmcd.com/ is plaintive. For this writer, to question Caesar is akin to Holocaust denial.

That we shouldn’t say we didn’t know

After pro-democracy demonstrators spray-painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall in Deraa, the dreaded Military Intelligence Directorate – known as the Mukhabarat in Arabic – arrested and tortured some teenagers. When security forces opened fire, killing several demonstrators, more took to the streets.

The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding President Assad's resignation and an end to his Alawite minority-dominated government. He responded with brute force trying to crush the dissent. But the violence spiraled, developing into a multi-faceted civil war. Today it encompasses dozens of rebel and jihadist groups, including ISIS which seeks to reestablish the caliphate, and Kurds who aspire to independence. The various factions are battling both each other and regime forces, which comprise mostly fighters and mercenaries from Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon and even China.

According to the SOHR, today some 500,000 people have died in the war’s ceaseless carnage, while more than 11,000,000 have been displaced in the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

In the future, historians may study American Jewish newspapers’ coverage of the worst mass murder since the Rwanda genocide of 1994 – when an estimated 800,000 citizens of the central African country were killed in a tribal genocide.

Those future historians may discover little coverage of events taking place next door to Israel.

But the news is waiting to be told. It includes relations between Druze in Syria and their 22,000 family members in Israel’s Golan Heights, wounded rebels treated in Israeli hospitals, stray shelling and missiles fired into Israel, the destruction of historic synagogues in Jobar and Dura-Europos, and the Jewish groups in the U.S. and Canada adopting Syrian refugees. These stories deserve prominence on the agenda of the Jewish and Israeli media.

The United States Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. has been documenting the crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria since early in the conflict. (See https://www.ushmm.org/syria.)

“The result of this conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions,” the USHM notes.

#Syria