A woman reacts as she looks at the images of dead bodies at the UN headquarters in New York. Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.
Some of the best-known images of crimes in Syria’s war are those from the staged executions by ISIS, costumed and choreographed for presentation on social media. Assad’s killings of prisoners have had less of a media profile, and were not intended to be publicised. Nevertheless they were also documented, the bodies photographed in their thousands by Assad’s security forces.
In March an exhibition at UN headquarters in New York showed 30 of those photographs. From Raya Jalabi’s report for The Guardian:
The photographs were part of a cache of 55,000 smuggled out of Syria on flash drives last year by “Caesar”, the code name given to a former Syrian military photographer who defected. Caesar had been tasked with taking pictures of the corpses of those who died inside facilities run by the Assad regime. The thousands of images were taken between 2011 and 2013, and according to forensic analysis depict 11,000 deaths. Caesar and his team recently began posting photos from the cache of victims’ faces on Facebook, to help families and prosecutors identify their missing relatives.
Photographs from the collection have also been shown at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Read and watch the BBC’s Kim Ghattas report on the exhibition:
“Showing the pictures is part of our mission to show that genocide didn’t end with the Holocaust. This is not just a 20th Century problem, it’s a 21st Century problem,” said Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s center for the prevention of genocide. He described the pictures as more extreme than anything else shown at the museum.
International war crimes scholar Cherif Bassiouni, who helped create the International Criminal Court, talked to Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast about what the photos show:
“What I see in the pictures is to a large extent an anomaly to the culture of the Syrian army. The way these pictures were taken show a great deal of systematicity, reflecting a culture that is systematic in its approach. This culture, in my opinion, is more reflected in Russia,” he said. “What you see in Russian bureaucracy today, particularly in the successor to the KGB and military, is really no different than what existed in the USSR. The people haven’t changed and their methods haven’t changed.”
Regime torture was the catalyst that triggered the Syrian uprising, after the arrests and abuse of 15 children in Daraa for writing anti-regime graffiti. Some of the earliest photos in the Caesar cache are of two other children from Daraa, 13 year old Hamza al-Khatib and 15 year old Thamer al-Sharei, tortured to death in the first months of protests. The photos are gruesome and disturbing.
In May of last year, a draft UN Security Council resolution sought to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over crimes by all parties in Syria’s war. It was vetoed by the governments of Russia and China.
The Caesar photographs documented 11,000 victims killed. We can’t know how many more have died in Assad’s jails. Many more tens of thousands remain imprisoned or missing.
Our leaders have tried to take some action, but it hasn’t been near enough. We cannot feel comfortable in a world where people, adults and children, are so dreadfully abused. We cannot feel safe in a world where criminals are left free to deliberately torture and kill on such a scale.
Who is next?
Read more: A manifesto for Syria