The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad is known for many things: the indiscriminate and purposeful targeting of civilian neighborhoods, mass executions of rebel sympathizers, the use of crude and deadly barrel bombs as well as chemical weapons and the withholding of food and aid to areas that are held by the opposition. Courtesy of three top international human rights lawyers, the systematic torture, killing and starvation of Syrian detainees can be added to the list of its grievous human rights.
According to a bombshell report (PDF) released to The Guardian newspaper and CNN, approximately 11,000 Syrian prisoners have been brutalized and killed in the past two and half years in what is described as a highly orchestrated campaign of retribution and punishment. Sir Desmond Lorenz de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the special tribunal for Sierra Leone and one of the authors of the report, bluntly labeled the actions depicted in the study as “documented industrial scale killing.”
Since the Syrian uprising began nearly three years ago, human rights lawyers from around the world have repeatedly called on the United Nations Security Council to refer officials in the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court. Navi Pillay, the United Nations’ top human rights official, has been at the forefront of this drive, pushing the council to hold human rights violators to account.
The graphic images and crystal clear conclusions of this latest report represent quite probably the most disturbing scenes that have come out of the war so far. And in contrast to other accounts that are largely based on circumstantial evidence from defectors or witnesses, this report is complete with the type of documentation that prosecutors dream of in a criminal trial.
The corpses photographed in the study are incredibly disturbing with many showing signs of starvation and emaciation. “There appear to have been many forms of torture used by those responsible for those in detention,” the report states. “The unmistakable remarks of ligature strangulation were evident on a number of bodies.”
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the findings is the concerted attempt by Syrian authorities to keep track of those who were killed in the detention system — a system designed to not only ensure that detainees were executed as ordered but to keep the truth of the killings from becoming public knowledge
Every body was assigned an identification number before being taken to the military hospital for examination where a fake cause of death was certified. A second number would be assigned to the body confirming that a cause of death of given. Only then would it be transported to a rural area for burial.
While the chances for a war crimes investigation against senior Syrian military and political leaders seem low, the pictures and details contained in this report provide human rights advocates and potential prosecutors with the type of evidence that they need to bolster their case. The systematic killing and disposal of prisoners in the Syrian detention system suggest that this was a campaign either ordered, encouraged or tacitly endorsed by the Syrian government’s senior leadership. It remains to be seen now whether that case can indeed be made.