Executive Summary for December 21st

Human Rights Watch has concluded a nine-month investigation into the Caesar photographs, a collection of thousands of images of more than 6,700 detainees who died in Syrian government custody. We spoke with one of the report's authors to learn more.

Published on Dec. 21, 2015 Read time Approx. 8 minutes

BEIRUT – Human Rights Watch has pieced together some of the tragic stories behind thousands of photos of more than 6,700 people who died in Syrian government custody.

Its nine-month investigation also uncovered new evidence establishing the authenticity of the photographs illustrating torture and death in detention facilities run by Bashar al-Assad’s government. The images were smuggled out of Syria in August 2013 by a military photographer turned defector codenamed Caesar.

The 86-page report, “If the Dead Could Speak: Mass Deaths and Torture in Syria’s Detention Facilities,” which reveals that at least 6,786 detainees died in government detention centers or military hospitals, pieces together the stories of some of the victims shown in Caesar’s photographs.

To identify the thousands of nameless victims, HRW interviewed relatives and friends of the victims, former detainees and government defectors who had worked in the detention centers or military hospitals visible in the images.

“Just about every detainee in these photographs was someone’s beloved child, husband, father or friend,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

As world powers redouble their efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria, HRW says the fates of the thousands of detainees in government custody should be a priority.

“Documents that we’ve found indicate that the people in charge of these facilities either knew, or had every obligation to know, that hundreds and thousands of the people in their care were dying on a regular basis. They meticulously documented these deaths,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, one of the report’s authors.

Syria Deeply spoke with Motaparthy to learn more about government detention in Syria and the widespread mistreatment, torture and death at these facilities.

Syria Deeply: Can you describe for us what the Caesar files actually detail?

Motaparthy: There are over 50,000 photographs in the collection as a whole. We split them into three categories. The first were photographs of dead soldiers, or dead pro-government militiamen. And their photographs were named with “The Martyr so-and so,” very honorific titles. That was one way in which we were able to distinguish them from the other photographs. They were all given their proper names. They were not given numbers. The second category of photos shows crime scenes: sites of car bombings, offices or vehicles with bullet holes … things of that nature. The third category is pictures of dead detainees. There are just over 28,000 photographs. The vast majority of these photographs were taken either in morgues or in the open-air garage of a military hospital in Damascus.

The bodies of the detainees came from different detention facilities around Damascus. But it appears that some of them may have received treatment at the hospital. In some of the photographs there is evidence of medical intervention. For example, signs of an IV line in someone’s arm or defibrillator pads on someone’s chest. But I would say those are the minority of the photographs. On all of the bodies, there is a set of numbers, either on white cards or pieces of paper, or sometimes directly on their chests. One of the numbers is the number of a security branch in Damascus: for example, the 215 Military Intelligence Branch, the 227 Branch, etc. We have reason to believe, based on the cases we followed and documented in detail, that the individuals were associated with these branches and held under their custody. In that vast majority of the cases, the prisoners are not named.

It’s our goal with this body of work to make sure the issue of detainees is not forgotten and is not taken off the table. Meeting with these families and hearing the anguish they went through, just ordinary people whose relatives disappeared one day while on the road at a checkpoint, while going to work, while trying to collect relief supplies … their family members just disappeared and they had no idea what happened to them until a private civil society organization published these very disturbing photographs online. For them to find out that their loved ones died in that manner is unconscionable. Even if it is something like ensuring that information pertaining to the missing and disappeared in Syria is collected in a more systematic way, and that people have a way to seek information that is not being provided by the Syrian government about where these individuals are being held and what may have happened to them … even that is a tremendously worthwhile goal.

Syria Deeply: HRW spent nine months researching this report. Could you tell us a bit more about what that research entailed?

Motaparthy: The report was HRW’s effort to investigate the authenticity of the Caeser photographs, and to really find some of the stories of the victims – to bring these people to life in a way. Human Rights Watch negotiated and was able to gain access to what we were told was the entire collection of photographs that Caesar smuggled out of Syria, and in the same file organization in which he transferred them. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by a collection of this size. And it’s very easy for the photographs to be quite dehumanizing, and [for someone] to have difficulty relating to such difficult and horrifying images, both what you see in the individual photographs and just the sheer quantity of them. All of that can be quite overwhelming. So what we wanted to do with this report was to show that these were real people. Their families searched for them for months, and for years in some of the cases. They paid huge amounts of money to middlemen and contacts they had in various Syrian government offices, and made every attempt possible to try and get their loved one out of these horrific detention centers. It shows these victims’ professions; what they were doing at the time they were arrested; their families’ efforts to try and find them. In some of the cases, we were actually able to find former detainees who had been in the same cell as the individuals we profiled. In a few of the cases we were able to get a first-hand account of their last moments. We found that very powerful.

The Caesar photographs have been in the public domain, well at least some of them, for a long time. News about the photographs first came out in January 2014. Much more recently, in March 2015, they were published online so people could actually look through them to see if they recognized their relatives.

In addition to finding the stories of the victims, and really putting names and histories and families behind some of these pictures, what we also did was to verify the photographs as a collection. We have a satellite imagery specialist who used 3D modeling techniques and satellite imagery analysis to locate several of these photographs that were captured in areas like the courtyard of the 601 military hospital in Damascus, which is extremely close to the presidential palace. We also analyzed some of the documents that are included in the collection: orders to transfer bodies to military hospitals and to photograph the bodies and send them for burial. We also tried to understand the file structure, how the files were organized and what information we could glean from that.

Syria Deeply: From what time period are most of the cases detailed in the report?

Motaparthy: The cases are from between May 2011 and August 2013, which is when Caesar is said to have fled Syria. Most of the cases in the report come from 2012.

Syria Deeply: In all of the cases detailed within the report, there is a gross level of mistreatment and often torture. Should we expect that similar practices are continuing in government detention centers up to this day?

Motaparthy: Definitely. HRW has been working on the issue of detention in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. In 2011 I actually went to Syria with a colleague, and even at that time – in April 2011 – we found widespread use of torture and specific techniques of torture. Detention and the conditions in detention are something that we’ve continued to treat as a priority issue. We’ve consistently found that methods of torture, including methods that are described in the report, have been used throughout this period.

Another point of verification we used with these photographs was actually to send a subset to Physicians for Human Rights, who had a team of forensic pathologists look at the photographs. The pathologists explained to me that the marks in several of the photographs indicated torture. Things like the placement of the wounds on the body – the consistency and types of markings they saw – indicated that the individuals in the photographs had been tortured. They were even able to identify very specific forms of torture, such as hanging by the wrists, forcing someone to put their head and legs into a tire so that they could not move when being beaten, and beating different parts of the body.

Syria Deeply: The timing of this report is very interesting – particularly as diplomatic efforts are redoubled to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria, and it now looks as though Assad may be involved longer than anyone initially expected. Was this planned in any way?

Motaparthy: The timing of this report was planned. We were very eager to have it launched before the next round of discussions and negotiations over Syria’s future. These photographs show more than 6,700 detainees who died in Syrian government custody. And that number, from what we understand from the photographs and our research, is really just a small fraction of the number of people who have died in government custody during the course of this conflict. That is a staggering number. Documents that we’ve found indicate that the people in charge of these facilities either knew, or had every obligation to know, that hundreds and thousands of the people in their care were dying on a regular basis. They meticulously documented these deaths.

The fate of the detainees that remain in Syria’s detention centers is something that cannot be left out of the negotiation process. The issue of detainees really gets at the heart of the Syrian conflict. How did the Syrian conflict begin? It began with the detention of a group with young people and children from Daraa, and the issue of detainees has continued to be a real flashpoint for the Syrian conflict.

Syria Deeply: Does HRW plan on using this series of photos to build cases against members of the Assad government?

Motaparthy: We don’t build legal cases. We provide investigations, documentation and evidence that governments, and in some cases specific individuals, have violated international human rights law. And we found in this report that there is extremely strong evidence that people in positions of authority over the Syrian detention system and the specific detention centers were aware of these crimes.

Top image: People look at graphic images, Wednesday, March 11, 2015, in an exhibition at the United Nations, showing detainees who have died in the prisons of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad since the start of Syria’s conflict four years ago. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)