Destruction of a mass grave in al-Qutayfah, Is Assad trying to escape punishment?

A picture taken of a mass grave in the town of al-Qutayfah north of Damascus - January 30, 2024 (The Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of the Sednaya Prison)

A picture taken of a mass grave in the town of al-Qutayfah north of Damascus - January 30, 2024 (The Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of the Sednaya Prison)

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The Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of the Sednaya Prison (ADMSP) published photos taken by satellites, revealing the leveling and bulldozing at the site of a mass grave near the town of al-Qutayfah in the Damascus countryside on January 30, 2024.

The grave is located about 45 kilometers north of the capital, near the headquarters of the Third Division in the Syrian regime’s army.

The images, which date back to early 2023, showed extensive excavation and land leveling with soil overturning at the site, indicating that the bulldozing operations began at the end of the summer of 2022 and ended in January 2023.

It is believed that the bodies of thousands of political detainees who were executed or died under torture in detention centers are buried under the area that was bulldozed.

Escape from punishment

Lawyers and human rights activists believe the reason behind the bulldozing operations is an attempt by the Syrian regime to erase evidence of its massacres against detainees and those forcibly disappeared during the past decade since the site is no longer visible or apparent in satellite images after the most recent bulldozing operation.

Enab Baladi spoke with lawyer and international law specialist, Mohammad Qanso, to understand the reasons prompting the Syrian regime to bulldoze the mass grave. He said that destroying the graves helps the regime deny their existence or that of mass massacres, in case a decision is issued by any European court, the International Court of Justice, or a United Nations resolution to introduce a fact-finding commission.

Qanso added that the regime cannot obliterate evidence, and the bulldozing and digging operations will not benefit it because the satellites have pinpointed the location of the mass graves and who is responsible for them.

Since the beginning of the shooting against the protesters, Bashar al-Assad has been considered a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, as described by international law, for his use of weapons, bombing cities, and killing children.

Countries such as the United States, Russia, and Israel have all the information about this, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) also has documents on the mass graves and detainees. However, it is not declared, and an example is the Tadamon massacre.

Therefore, it can be concealed if an international deal occurs to allow Bashar al-Assad to leave without accountability, as erasing the physical evidence of any criminal act helps the criminal or accused to deny the crime itself and thus escape punishment.

Mass graves

Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in mid-March 2011, the Syrian regime started arbitrary detention campaigns against men, women, and even children on charges related to terrorism for their participation in the peaceful movement.

The numbers of detainees inside the regime’s prisons vary, as there are no completely accurate figures, and all figures issued by human rights entities pertain to individuals whose information could be obtained.

According to the latest statistics of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), there are at least 112,000 forcibly disappeared, including 6,698 women and 3,105 children in various prisons of the conflicting parties and controlling forces inside Syria, with 85% of them disappeared in the regime’s prisons.

In an investigation published by The New York Times in collaboration with the Association of Detainees and Missing Persons of the Sednaya Prison, witnesses identified two mass graves, believed to contain thousands of bodies of Syrians who were arrested.

One witness who worked in burying civilians before the revolution and was later recruited by intelligence officers to dispose of bodies coming from detention centers, has been doing this work for six years, said that the first grave he worked in from mid-2011 until early 2013 was located in the town of Najha, south of Damascus.

In early 2013, the regime’s government created a new mass grave near a Syrian army base in the town of al-Qutayfah, north of Damascus, according to his statement.

He added that at times during the six years he worked at mass graves, his team would empty two trucks about twice a week, each carrying between 150 to 600 bodies.

The founder of the ADMSP, Diab Serriyah, previously told Enab Baladi that the association has information about five mass graves, only two of which were mentioned in the report due to insufficient information and evidence about the other three graves.

He explained that revealing the graves without adequate evidence could lead the Syrian regime to move the graves from their locations before fully documenting them.

Eyewitnesses

In recent years, testimonies have emerged from individuals recruited by the Syrian regime to document deaths within its prisons or who participated in the burial process.

“Caesar,” a pseudonym for a member of the military security, leaked photos of detainees killed under torture in the military hospital after defecting from the regime in 2013, as he was assigned to photograph the bodies for preservation in their files.

More than 50,000 photos were published in 2014, through which victims’ families were able to identify the fate of their missing loved ones, while others could not recognize them due to disfigurement by torture.

Assad’s response to the photos presented to him during an interview with the American “Yahoo News” site, published by the Syrian Presidency on February 2, 2017, was denial and questioning who verified those photos and made sure they were not edited on Photoshop or other programs.

Grave Digger” is a code name used by a witness who worked in mass graves associated with the Syrian regime, due to continuous threats against him and his family.

The witness appeared for the first time during an interview on CBS NEWS on March 29, to talk about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his fears of a repetition of what happened in Syria.

In the same month, the witness spoke to committees in the US Congress about heinous crimes in Syria, including dumping thousands of bodies in mass graves.

The “Grave Digger” gave his testimony before the US Senate on the continuation of mass grave digging in Syria by the Syrian regime, on June 8, 2022.

Serriyah stressed in the same report, which included the bulldozing of the grave, the need for the international community to take concrete measures to address the ongoing crisis facing families lacking any information about the fate of their loved ones and accountability in a country suffering from one of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

He added that until now, no senior Syrian official has been brought to justice for their involvement in past and ongoing crimes against humanity.

The trials that took place under the principles of universal jurisdiction have mainly targeted former intelligence officials, shabiha (state-sponsored militia) participants, and National Defense members, and at the same time, many war crime perpetrators and criminals against humanity continue to hold high positions in Syria and receive promotions.

 

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