LONDON (Reuters) - Syrian officials could face war crimes charges after a military police photographer defected and provided evidence showing the systematic killing of 11,000 detainees, the Guardian newspaper reported, citing three lawyers who had examined the files.
The photographs will ratchet up the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, who the United States and its Western allies say has committed war crimes against his own people. Assad denies war crimes and says he is fighting ‘terrorists’.
But the defector’s evidence, which records deaths of those in custody from March 2011 until August 2013, shows emaciated, bloodstained corpses that bore signs of torture.
Some had no eyes. Others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.
The report said the photographs and files were smuggled out of Syria and provided by a Syrian military police photographer who asked to be identified as ‘Caesar’.
‘Caesar’ smuggled the images out of Syria on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar, the Guardian said.
The three lawyers, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined the evidence and interviewed the source in three sessions in the last 10 days. They found him credible, the Guardian said.
The inquiry team said it was satisfied there was “clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. It would support findings of crimes against humanity and could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime.”
The authors are Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, Sir Geoffrey Nice, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.
The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the United Nations, governments and human rights groups, said the Guardian, which obtained a copy.
The lawyers could not immediately be reached to comment on the Guardian’s report.
Caesar told the newspaper his job was to take pictures of killed detainees though he did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture.
“There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse,” it said.
The photographs allowed a death certificate to be produced without requiring families to view bodies, and also confirmed that execution orders had been carried out, the report said.
Families of the dead were told that the cause of death was either a “heart attack” or “breathing problems”, it added.
Three experienced forensic science experts examined and authenticated samples of 55,000 digital images, comprising about 11,000 victims, the Guardian said.
“Overall there was evidence that a significant number of the deceased were emaciated and a significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects,” the report says.
De Silva told the Guardian that the evidence “documented industrial-scale killing”.
“This is a smoking gun of a kind we didn’t have before. It makes a very strong case indeed,” he said.