Al-Assad’s crimes in millions of documents: When will accountability start?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
“The archive of evil” recently published by the British newspaper The Sunday Times re-discussed the bulk of documents that prove the Syrian regime’s involvement in committing serious human rights violations in Syria.
The archive contains one million documents about torture and murders committed against Bashar al-Assad’s opponents, some of them bearing the national emblem of the Syrian state (the Hawk of Quraish) and others holding the signature of the Syrian president himself. The documents, stored in 265 boxes of cardboard inside a secretly-located basement guarded with security cameras in a European city, stand as an evidence of the Syrian regime’s and its leader’s conviction.
The documents published by the British newspaper were not the first of their kind. The newly-announced archive was preceded actually by other documents which turned to be an important tool for the work of human rights activists in Syria. Yet, the file of detainees and the crimes related to it is pending, as neither the Syrian opposition nor the international community succeeded in moving forward with these cases and suing the responsible parties.
The balance of power undermines the impact of the documents
With the imminent completion of military operations on the ground, news is spreading about the initiation of a transitional process based on a political solution, mainly through the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the expected elections under the auspices of the United Nations. Accordingly, questions are raised about the importance of violation files accusing the Syrian regime, and the impact they may impose on any future political stage, especially since such documents prove the involvement of the Syrian regime and its security apparatus in war crimes and atrocities against humanity.
The director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), Mohammad al-Abdallah, said that the impact of the files and reports issued by international organizations on violations committed by the Syrian regime is weak as the political file is currently powerless. Such dysfunctionality is clear especially regarding the balance of military forces on the ground and the fact that the Syrian regime has regained control over large areas in Syria. Moreover, the Syrian opposition is incapable of imposing a different negotiation path based on the presence of evidences about existing violations.
Al-Abdallah said in an interview with Enab Baladi that it is possible that some countries, such as the United States or the European Union, exert pressure later on the issue of removing some political personalities during the transitional period because there are evidences of their involvement in war crimes and atrocities against humanity, like Jamil Hassan who is wanted for justice after an arrest warrant was issued against him by the German Public Prosecution for war crimes.
Al-Abdallah explained that the proofs about violations can become more useful if a change and a political transition take place in Syria, “and when we perceive a progress in the course of negotiations in different directions, we can talk by then about scrutinizing the political personalities who committed war crimes and violations, sacking them and reforming the security apparatus; in addition to dismissing officers and officials who played a role in violations and torture.
This means that making use of the documents of violations at the political level can be changed according to the developments of the political file and the shifts of the balance of power.
The Syrian Constitutional Committee which was adopted at the peace conference in Sochi, Russia, in January 2018, has been the locus of interest. The three guarantor states (Turkey, Russia, Iran) have announced the final version of the Syrian Constitutional Committee’s list of members, composed of members from the opposition, the Syrian regime and civil society activists, amid controversy over the selection of civil society members list.
Not all international conferences on the Syrian issue, over the past years, have seriously addressed the file of violations committed by the Syrian regime against civilians and individuals detained in Syria security buildings. The Mini-group on Syria, composed of the US, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Britain, leaked its own principles which will be used to find a solution for the Syrian crisis. Such principles included several sections about the elections and al-Assad’s jurisdictions as well as the type of the future government.
According to al-Abdallah, the situation today is different from the previous period, when the US was absent from the Geneva Talks and the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, was appointed. “In the past, we heard about the US plan to withdraw from Syria, but now the tactics have shifted toward a prominent American military presence in Syria until Iran’s defeat, which may affect in one way or another the mechanism of using the files of violations,” he clarified.
He added: “If international pressure exists, it could help move these files forward and employ them politically to put pressure on the Syrian regime and Russia.”
The Syrian regime covers violations using bureaucracy
SJAC’s director, Mohammad al-Abdallah, said that till this day the Caesar Torture Photos are considered to be the most important evidence on widespread systematic violations in Syria’s history after 2011. The photos clearly indicate that torture was not an isolated incident perpetrated on an individual scale, but was rather a state policy based on organized efforts to arrest, torture and kill people.
The pictures, which were leaked by the dissident officer Caesar, showed the strangulation of the detainees, in addition to the way prisoners’ torture was recorded and archived. The situation seemed very clear and precise.
“Caesar, a dissident officer of al-Assad regime, leaked 55,000 photographs of 11,000 detainees in 2014. The captions, which showed prisoners being killed under torture, were presented in the US Senate, raising overwhelming reactions by Arab and Western media.”
However, al-Abdallah believes that The Sunday Times’ report about “the Archive of Evil” is a bit exaggerated. He ruled out the existence of arrest warrants and torture orders signed personally by Bashar al-Assad.
Al-Abdallah asserted that some documents contain Bashar al-Assad’s signature, but he does not think that such written evidences are authentic. The same assumption can be generalized regarding the totality of documents.
Out of the one million pages The Sunday Times talked about, the SJAC has contributed with 600,000 pages in coordination with the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
According to al-Abdallah, the documents which SJAC assisted with were not signed by Bashar al-Assad, nor did they include torture orders or lists of assassination targets. Rather, the documents explained that the regime’s government was taking all measures to prevent any violations. He pointed out that the Syrian regime was trying to cover itself and its practices in case such files are discovered by the international community or leaked.
The reported lists of detainees by the Syrian regime refer to the arrested civilians as terrorists, but in fact they are either activists in the field of relief and media or peaceful demonstrators. After being captured, the detainees were arrested and tortured inside the regime’s security branches.
Al-Abdallah explained that the Syrian regime attempted to document the incidents of torture and murder in a way that may be analyzed in favor of the security services’ defense later.
He says that the regime’s practices on the ground are contradictory to the content of the documents, but that does not prevent the trials to be established and the credibility of these documented files to be scrutinized. For example, there are some documents in which the Ba’ath Party orders the security forces to deal with people respectfully, with the exception of robbery cases, and warned against offending Syrian citizens; however, in reality there are thousands of videos that prove otherwise.
The bureaucratic practices employed by the government of the Syrian regime are considered to be a basic replica of the Russian security services’ operations. As such, the Syrian security forces were trained and optimized in Russia, which makes it a copy of the Soviet Union’s security policy.
According to al-Abdallah, the regime tried to document the killing of detainees and civilians following bureaucratic measures, reversing a reality in which violations are committed. This method is employed to find an outlet to cover the regimes’ crimes in the future.
The documents proving the violations in Syria can be compared to Cambodia’s reconciliation trials. The Cambodian government has brought evidence to refute its genocide charge, but evidences retrieved by the trial witnesses and victims debunked the state’s documentation. Eventually, the case presented by the victims and the witnesses was the one to be taken into consideration.
Reports proved al-Assad’s crimes, but no international reaction
Human rights and international organizations have issued several reports during the past years documenting the Syrian regime’s violations against detainees, including torture, killing and burning. However, these reports remained locked in boxes without international action to stop crimes against the Syrian people.
The process of collecting documents has started after the beginning of the Syrian revolution through a large team of international investigators who collect and prepare judicial files in accordance with international standards, according to the General Coordinator of the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons in Sednaya Prison, Diab Sariya. He confirmed that the investigators had established with Syrian lawyers the Syria Justice and Accountability Center under direct support of several countries, including the UK and USA, in order to collect as much evidence and documents as possible proving that the Syrian regime issued orders to kill protesters and detainees.
Sariya pointed out in an interview with Enab Baladi that several methods have been adopted to collect the documents; the first of which was cooperating with figures and officers in sensitive areas within the Syrian regime, who remained in their jobs and did not declare their dissent during the wave of dissents that occurred during the 2012 revolution, and leaked these documents.
The second method was through the documents that the Free Syrian Army factions have been obtaining after controlling the regime’s districts and military airports, according to Sariya. He confirmed that the lawyers and human rights activists have been accompanying the factions and working to raise their awareness of the need to keep the military archive in the districts.
Sariya pointed out that the international team trained Syrian human rights activists and a group of activists in Turkey on the types of documents and evidence collection. He noted that these documents were transferred from Syria to Turkey, then to Europe and there they were analyzed, confirmed, arranged and classified.
The documents include a large archive of security services, minutes of meetings of intelligence branches and minutes of the meeting of the National Security Bureau, which includes the heads of the four security services (Political Security, Military Security, State Security and Air Intelligence), as well as the Minister of Defense and the President, who has been issuing his orders as the start of battles and bombing.
“Hard” US attempts to pass the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act
The Sunday Times’s report was not the first to document crimes in Syria. A team of international investigators published a report in 2014 that they considered as “direct evidence” of “torture and mass murder,” based on more than 50,000 images of bodies of Syrian detainees who died under torture, which had been leaked through a dissident from the Syrian Military Police named “Caesar” by human rights activists.
Desmond de Silva, one of the three lawyers who participated in the preparation of the report considered that the images were close to those of the survivors of the “Holocaust,” and they reminded him of those who were liberated from the Nazi death camps, after World War II, according to the US news network CNN.
The photos had then sparked outrage among human rights and international activists, amid demands to hold the Syrian regime accountable and refer it to the International Court of Justice to be tried for its crimes. These demands turned into serious moves in the United States.
Two years ago, the US House of Representatives (Congress) had passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which is currently being discussed in the Senate.
If passed by the Senate, the Act must be signed into law by the President of the United States to come into force.
The Act calls for “the cessation of massacres committed against the Syrian people and the penalization of anyone providing support to al-Assad’s regime. The draft resolution also requires the president of the United States to impose new sanctions on al-Assad’s allied states.”
This law allows for the penalization of al-Assad’s supporters, including Russia and Iran, and aims to stop the massacres that are being committed against the Syrian people.
The Act stipulates that 30 days after the resolution comes into force, the President of the United States must include the nationals of other states in the sanctions list if he considers that these persons provide al-Assad’s regime with financial or technical support that may allow him to possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, manufacture ballistic or winged missiles, or get other weapons in large quantities.
The US president is also required to impose sanctions against foreigners who provide defense services and military information to al-Assad’s regime, and those dealing with the Central Bank of Syria, as well as sanctions against those whose actions contribute to the worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The draft includes a list of al-Assad’s regime officials, including Bashar al-Assad, his wife Asma, political security officials and military commanders in the air force and military intelligence.
According to the Director of the Syrian Center for Legal Research and Studies, Lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, passing the Act by the Congress reinforces the principle of accountability, although its use is limited to the political aspect.
Al-Bunni told Enab Baladi that “the US administration and Europe are holding this law as a political card to determine the way of dealing with the Syrian regime, but not in the legal sense. This does not necessitate any legal action against the regime. It is rather a matter of a political and economic penalization of the regime, preventing it from investing its crimes to restore legitimacy to itself. This is beneficial for us as Syrians anyways. However, as far as the legal process is concerned, it does not create a legal mechanism to open lawsuits before courts or establish courts. This does not even allow the US law to hold the regime accountable for its crimes before the US courts.”
Amnesty International documents “horrific” stories of torture
In August 2016, Amnesty International documented the death circumstances of more than 17,000 detainees in the regime’s prisons during five years. In a report on torture and death, it documented the death of 17,723 people during their detention between March 2011 and December 2015, and reported “horrific stories” of torture varying from boiling with water to beating to death.
In February 2017, Amnesty International documented, in a report it published, the various ways of mass executions the Syrian regime had committed against detainees in Sednaya Prison.
The report was entitled the “Human Slaughterhouse.” The organization said that between 2011 and 2015, the regime had committed mass executions by hanging against 13,000 detainees; the majority of them were oppositionist civilians.
Executions were being committed on a weekly basis or perhaps twice a week, according to the Amnesty International, which described the executions as “secret,” where groups of about 50 people were taken out of their cells, and hanged to death.
The organization’s 52-page report was based on a thorough investigation it had conducted over a whole year, as it mentioned. The report included interviews and testimonies of 84 people, including former prison guards, officials, detainees, judges, lawyers, as well as local and international experts.
According to the guards’ testimonies, the prisoners were “taken out of their cells and subjected to random trials until they were hanged in the middle of the night in complete secrecy, and they were blindfolded throughout the operation.”
Amnesty International quoted a former judge who witnessed the executions as saying: “They were being left hanging there for ten to 15 minutes, while assistant officers had been grabbing lighter weight young detainees, and smashing their necks.”
The President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, denounced the report and said in an interview on February 16, with French radio station Europe1 and TF1 TV channel, that “the organization’s report is childish and too shameful. It is a shame that an international organization publishes alleging and false reports on Syria. Torture is not used in Syria. We do not use torture methods in prisons, because this is not part of our manners.”
International Mechanism “: 700,000 pages on violations
Last April, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, which has been established by the United Nations in February 2017 to hold perpetrators of the crimes in Syria accountable, announced that it had collected more than 700,000 pages documenting abuses committed since 2011.
During a closed session of the United Nations General Assembly, held on 18 April, the head of the International Mechanism, Judge Catherine Marchi-Uhel, said that these violations, which consist of the chemical attacks on the city of Duma, call for accelerated efforts to hold war criminals accountable in Syria.
The French judge spoke of “atrocities” committed by all parties to the conflict in Syria, including forced disappearances, sexual harassment against females and males, the use of the most severe forms of torture and immediate execution, as well as targeting vital centers, including schools and hospitals.
Justice is a difficult road… How to establish it in Syria?
Perhaps the most important question that needs to be raised, concerning the reports that are documenting the violations of the regime, is the reason why the countries responsible for these reports are blocking them, and not being able to tackle them in conjunction with the political moves, especially those sponsored by the United Nations, which is supposed to be a basic pillar and factor that will provide a clear and firm picture of the Syrian reality since 2011.
The director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center, Mohammad al-Abdallah, believes that the most important reason behind blocking these reports is the scant possibility of working on it or using them during trials. There is no competent court in Syria that complies with the treaty of the International Criminal Court. Therefore, the ICC cannot open an investigation concerning Syria. The Security Council is also unable to refer the file to the International Criminal Court or to establish an international tribunal for Syria, given the permanent Russian veto.
Lawyer Fahd al-Qadi, a member of the Syrian Legalists Committee, stated that justice would not be brought in Syria unless there is a political consensus over the fate of the Syrian regime and its president, for this is a case related to politics. “Justice is a long and arduous road, and the crimes are not time-barred from prosecution. The criminal court could be established at any time,” he said.
During an interview with Enab Baladi the judge pointed out to the existence of legal files derived from reality. They are currently being prepared by the opposition and human rights activists in order to be send to international bodies. He also pointed out to the existence of some files, which are documenting the crimes of the regime. However, they were not sent to the UN waiting the formation of international courts.
According to the judge, in spite of the poor reactions that these reports and files might encounter, the opposition in Syria must document all the committed violations in order to be ready when the courts in Syria will resume their activity and justice will be brought.
The head of the Syrians for Truth and Justice Organization, Bassam Ahmed, stated during an interview with Enab Baladi that three steps must be taken in order to establish justice. The first step is to document crimes and violations in Syria, regardless of the perpetrator, in addition to resorting to the countries that abide by international jurisdiction and the establishment of special courts similar to those in Germany. The German prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant against the head of Syrian Air Intelligence, Jamil al-Hassan, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The third step consists of the formation of an international tribunal to investigate war crimes in Syria.
The head of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, Anwar al-Bunni, told Enab Baladi that Syrians can resort to international jurisdiction to prosecute the regime key figures for committing violations classified as war crimes. The search warrant issued against al-Hassan was the latest.
This shall be implemented through a claim made to the Prosecutor of one the states which abide by international jurisdiction, including Germany. Then, the claimant may bring the case before the domestic courts when obtaining the consent of the Prosecutor.
Mohammed al-Abdullah believes that the only solution currently available to the Syrians is the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism established by the United Nations General Assembly resolution, not the Security Council, and thus there is no Russian veto.
The International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism has dealt with several unknown files so far, and in the past few days there has been talk about two files currently discussed in the United Nations to ensure justice in Syria, according to al-Abdullah.
On September 28, 2018, the US State Department announced that high-level officials from the United States, Britain and France had discussed the human rights violations committed by the Syrian regime with representatives of Syrian human rights organizations on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Opinion poll: Can the files documenting crimes in Syria contribute to establishing justice and a political solution?
An opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its website, to which around 500 participants have responded, revealed that 57 percent of these participants believed that the files documenting the crimes would contribute to establishing justice and a political solution. However, around 43 percent of them claimed that these files won’t be able to establish justice.
Despite the “optimistic” attitude of the participants, the comments on the poll linked justice to the existence of a neutral judiciary, but “the fact is that the international community is the adversary and the referee,” according to Abu Hudhayfa Alian.
On the other hand, Yousef Khatib believed that there was little justice, and wondered whether “interests would meet justice someday?”
Previous experiences with achieving justice
The situation in Syria is very similar to the situation of other countries that have suffered from conflicts and wars during the last century and witnessed war crimes committed by individuals and officials. Years after this, the war stopped and political solutions started to be found.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the Balkan countries and has been subjected to Serbian and Croatian offenses after declaring its independence. The war lasted for four years, during which civilians were subject to horrific massacres and some groups suffered from ethnic cleansing, particularly the Bosnian Muslims, as well as the destruction of large cities, before an agreement was reached between the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia in 1995, known as Dayton Agreement.
Radovan Karadžić, who was responsible for these massacres particularly the Srebrenica massacre, which took the lives of around 8,000 people, was free for more than 12 years before he was arrested in 2008 by Serbian forces that received information from a foreign intelligence service. The US has allocated $ 5 million to those who would provide any information about him.
In 2016, the International Criminal Court sentenced Karadžić to 40 years in prison, while a court in Bosnia sentenced Jovan Tintor, who was close to Karadžić, to 11 years in prison for the crimes he committed.
The Rwanda massacre took place in 1994 when 800,000 Tutsi people were killed by Hutu extremists. The massacre ended when Tutsi armed forces took control over the capital, with the support of the Ugandan state. Then, a consensual government was established.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established at the request of the Government of Rwanda, and its powers covered the accountability of the people responsible for the crimes. The United Nations International Criminal Court sentenced the former military commander, Augustin Bizimungu, to 30 years in prison and sentenced many officials involved in the genocide to prison, such as Minister Pauline Nyiramasuhuko who was accused of participating in the government’s decision to form militias across the country.