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Saturday 19 February 2022

Bringing Assad to Justice

Review by Clara Connolly

Earlier this month, the Frontline Club in London screened a new film on the challenge of getting accountability for crimes in Syria, followed by a discussion with the film-makers. Bringing Assad to Justice is the second major documentary about the Syrian conflict by Anne Daly and Ronan Tynan, of the independent Irish film team Esperanza Productions.

The film has won several awards around the world since its launch in Berlin last year, including winner of best documentary at festivals in Toronto and New York, and at the African Human Rights film festival. This screening was particularly significant as the Frontline Club is a prestigious gathering place for international journalists and photographers, championing independent media and truthful investigative journalism.

The crimes

I confess that I was slightly dreading the screening—not of course meeting up with old friends and acquaintances, but revisiting the inevitable depiction of unimaginable atrocities, in what Roy Gutman in the film describes as “war crimes masquerading as a war.”

And yes, we heard direct accounts of detention and torture from ex-detainees such as Anwar Al Bunni, Riyad Avlar and Majeda Khoury, sometimes vividly illustrated by the artist Marc Nelson; we saw the gruesome series of photographs of the dead, with their terrible injuries, as meticulously recorded by the Syrian regime, and smuggled out of Syria by the official code-named Caesar; we saw again the visual testimony of the relentless regime bombing of hospitals from Waad al-Kateab, co-director of the Channel 4 film For Sama; we heard from Paul Conroy, war photographer and stalwart companion of the great war correspondent Marie Colvin, about her deliberate targeting and assassination in February 2012 while working from the Homs Media Centre.

For some in the audience, this was not new, but for others the shock was palpable. Syria has faded from the news in recent years, and in any case much of this material has not been well-reported in the mainstream—partly because of how difficult it is to watch and absorb. The film-makers do a brilliant job in presenting the nature of the regime’s response to civilian opposition, in its extraordinary barbarity, as an issue that needs to be confronted head–on by journalists.

Toby Cadman, barrister at Guernica Chambers, suggests that the reason for the ferocity of such crimes is the lack of visible means of international accountability. The UN no longer functions as a check to human rights abuses by the state on its own people, because of the use of the veto on the UN Security Council. Mary Kaldor, author of New and Old Wars, reminds us that international law and its protocols, designed for wars between states, is an inadequate framework for a state at war with its own citizens, or where the strategy is the destruction of civil life and its institutions. As a consequence, Mouaz Moustafa of the Syrian Emergency Task Force describes the despair of those who recognised their dead family members in the Caesar pictures, to be told that there was no forum for redress for Syrian citizens. “Is Syrian blood of less worth?” they ask.

The investigations

In reply, the film traces the dedicated work by Syrians themselves in exile, aided by international journalists, lawyers, and archivists, to compile and examine the evidence smuggled out of Syria. Some of this was provided by ex officials of the regime, such as ‘Caesar’ who for over two and a half years in Damascus photographed the bodies of 11,000 dead detainees, labelled with their prison numbers, where held and where killed; and with the aid of the opposition left Syria with 55,000 photographs and other documents. Ibrahim Alkasem, director of the Caesar Files Group in Berlin, worked to arrange and archive these photographs in order to have the bodies identified by relatives. For example, the photographs were exhibited in Idlib, the last remaining opposition held area in Syria. As a result, 7,000 of the bodies have been identified by their families to date.

Many thousands of regime documents, identifying its control and command structures, which fell into the hands of the opposition, were smuggled out by Syrian citizen journalists, and are now archived in a secret location in Europe by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). Nerma Jelacic, its Bosnian director, explains that these documents have exposed the regime’s blanket arrest policy, targeting even the lowest form of participation in mass demonstrations, as a “special mission” by order of Assad himself.

Stephen J Rapp, who was US Ambassador for War Crimes during the Obama presidency, and is currently Chair of CIJA’s Board of Commissioners, specifies the forensic analysis to which all these documents have been subjected, and he concludes that the evidence is “better than the allies held in Nuremberg.” Unlike Nazi Germany, “the Syrian system itself is producing the evidence.. of the ongoing machinery of death.”

In addition Kristyan Benedict describes how testimony from Syrian survivors has helped the Forensic Architecture team, working with Amnesty International, to construct a map of the notorious Saydnaya prison where thousands were tortured and killed.

There is also the open source evidence of indiscriminate bombings of civilians in opposition areas, contrary to international law, such as that filmed by tens of thousands of Syrian citizens and media centres, and analysed by experts such as Bellingcat, or the New York Times visual investigative team.

The court cases

But, in the absence of an international criminal court or war crimes tribunal, where can such evidence be tested? The first case was in the US, when in 2016 Marie Colvin’s family sued the Syrian regime for her murder, using the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows victims to sue, in a US federal court, state-sponsored agents of terrorism for an extrajudicial killing. The Court found the regime directly responsible, using evidence leaked from regime defectors of their intent to directly target Marie Colvin following her CNN broadcast from Homs. Although the award to her family cannot currently be enforced, the finding of regime responsibility for an act of state terrorism is the first public indictment, and Paul Conroy ( witness in the trial) tells us that it led to an FBI criminal investigation.

Secondly, lawyers turned to the European courts, using the principle of universal jurisdiction, whereby the court of any state can prosecute a war crime committed elsewhere, based on the idea that some crimes are so serious that they affect the international community. Its purpose is to stop people who have committed such crimes from finding safe haven in another country.

• Bringing Assad to Justice is available on Vimeo.

The first Syrian official to face trial was Anwar Raslan, the head of investigation in a Damascus intelligence branch, who sought asylum in Germany. And Germany was an ideal location for such a trial, given the large number of Syrian refugees living there. Raslan was recognised by Anwar Al Bunni in a refugee accommodation centre in Berlin as the man responsible for his torture, and so he gave evidence, one of fifty witnesses at the trial in Koblenz in 2020. Besides giving testimony himself, Anwar Al Bunni, through his organisation the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research, collected other compelling witness evidence against Raslan. Many of the witnesses in the Raslan trial knew Al Bunni through his work in defending them in Syria. So his participation, alongside other Syrian lawyers, such as Mazen Darwish of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, was crucial in finding and encouraging witnesses.

Documents from CIJA were used in the trial to prove Mr Raslan’s position of authority. Caesar’s evidence was also provided to the Court. At the time of filming, the trial was in progress, and we saw scenes inside and outside the court, where activists showed pictures of the victims. We also met Patrick Kroker of the ECCHR, who represented the plaintiffs in the trial, working closely with Anwar Al Bunni’s organisation. Since the filming, Raslan and a minor official tried with him were both found guilty of crimes against humanity; Raslan was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Patrick Kroker, lawyer in the Raslan case, has also filed a complaint against Saydnaya prison, using the evidence compiled by the Amnesty International team.

Toby Cadman spoke of a case he is preparing against the Russian state, in the European Court of Human Rights, for the bombing of hospitals in Aleppo. He is using the Channel 4 film For Sama as evidence, as well as evidence from the New York Times visual investigation team. He urges journalists world-wide to report and investigate war crimes, to counter misinformation and to “give the public a sense of what is criminal in war.”

Fighting disinformation and impunity

The film concludes with a warning of increased danger for Syrian refugees, when there is pressure for them to return, and when in the absence of interest in other solutions, the regime is being normalised. Bringing an end to impunity, and the work of highlighting Assad’s crimes, becomes all the more urgent in this context.

However, Anwar Al Bunni defines his work more broadly, as being “not just about Syria” but a signal to all dictators and human rights abusers that they are not safe from justice. “These court cases can send a message,” he says.

There are other sections of the film, particularly concerning the White Helmets and the disinformation war against them, which are more fully dealt with elsewhere—see for example the Mayday podcast by the BBC. Bringing Assad to Justice is nearly two hours long, and could have been more focused, I felt, but I understand why the film-makers wanted to include the issue of misinformation campaigns, given the talk in Europe and in the region of normalisation and refoulement of refugees.

There was a lively discussion afterwards, with the film-makers and with Paul Conroy who had featured in the film. I was particularly moved by the presence of Nerma Jernacic who expressed her passion in the work of CIJA as arising from her realisation of the relative failure of Bosnians to document the human rights abuses against them. This made her understand the importance of the archival work of CIJA.

I loved Toby Cadman’s story of what Ahmad Helmi, a former detainee and now campaigner, had said to him about the fight against impunity: “It’s one sock at a time. If you ask a child to clean up her room it’s overwhelming. So concentrate on one sock at a time.”

The film-makers gave an eloquent response to the question, what inspired you to make this film? “Our first film about Syria (The Impossible Revolution) described a peaceful uprising and the terrifying regime response. Our second film was the answer to our first—what can we do about this?”

And what they have done is an amazing achievement. So I left feeling hopeful, having heard the ongoing story of the revolution, now conducted by Syrian exiles and their allies worldwide in an ongoing battle for dignity and justice, in full faith with the original ideals of 2011.

The full film, Bringing Assad to Justice, is available to rent or buy on Vimeo.