Professor Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at Dundee University, described horrifying evidence that could see Syrian government officials face charges for murder on an industrial scale.
The strangulation, beating, electrocution and starvation of thousands of young men was likened to Nazi death camps by Prof Black, one of a panel of world-renowned experts sent to the Middle East to examine thousands of smuggled Syrian government photographs taken to record the deaths.
Prof Black said the images were the most distressing she had witnessed in a 30-year forensic career that had seen her investigate war crimes in Kosovo and identify victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami.
The contents of the report were published on the eve of the opening of today’s peace talks in Switzerland, which represent the biggest diplomatic effort yet to end the three-year conflict between president Bashar al-Assad’s government and the rebels. The conflict has left more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced.
The atrocities, reported on by Prof Black and five other experts in their fields, came to light as the result of the defection of a former Syrian military policeman, whose job had been to take photographs of the corpses of the torture victims.
The former military policeman – codenamed Caesar to protect his true identity – managed to smuggle out 55,000 pictures that he and others had taken of around 11,000 corpses.
Speaking to The Scotsman after returning from her trip to the Middle East where she spent two days examining the images, Prof Black described the pictures as “absolutely horrendous”, and likened the imagery of the starved remains with “going back in time and looking at concentration camps”.
She said: “It was most distressing. In this day and age, you really don’t expect to be able to witness these sort of things on this sort of scale. It is very sobering.”
Prof Black said that the levels of pain the young men would have gone through during torture would have been “indescribable”.
And describing her shock at the scale of the violence, she added: “I have been doing forensic work for over 30 years and this is the worse I have seen . . . The volume of deceased is not new to me, but the level of interpersonal violence is.”
Another of the report authors, Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone, agreed with Prof Black’s comparison of the pictures with Second World War death camps.
He said: “Some of the images we saw were absolutely reminiscent of pictures of people who came out of Belsen and Auschwitz. It is the tip of the iceberg because this is 11,000 in just one area.
“This is not to say that the people on the other side have been free of serious crime. I think there is evidence that has led very responsible people to say there have been crimes committed on both sides. But this industrial killing of people in detention in our view is clearly that of the government.”
The six members of the inquiry team were split into a legal section and a forensic section. The legal team, which included Sir Desmond, had the job of determining whether “Caesar” was a credible witness.
The forensic team, including Prof Black, took responsibility for scrutinising the images provided by Caesar in a memory stick, which had been delivered to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is opposed to Assad and is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar, which commissioned the report.
The images showed mostly naked, bloodstained bodies that were emaciated with evidence of beating and burns.
Ligature marks were found on necks indicating death by strangulation. Ligature marks on wrists and ankles suggested other forms of torture. Some bodies had no eyes. Others showed signs of electrocution.
Caesar told the investigators his job was “taking pictures of killed detainees”. He did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture.
“The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention, their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar’s function being to photograph the corpses . . . ” the report says.
“There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph, which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse.
“The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First, to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out.”
Families were told that the cause of death was either a “heart attack” or “breathing problems”.
The report added: “The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed, each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death.
“When the corpse was taken to the military hospital, it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital. Once the bodies were photographed, they were taken for burial in a rural area.”
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the images were “compelling and horrific”, and that perpetrators must be held to account.
Speaking in the Commons, he said Britain was doing “a great deal” to catalogue evidence of human rights violations. He added: “I’ve seen a lot of this evidence. It is compelling and horrific and it is important those who have perpetrated these crimes are one day held to account.
“The United Kingdom has done a great deal in the documentation of human rights abuses. Part of the support we have given to moderate political forces in Syria is to train human rights activists in the recording and documentation of crimes, many of which have therefore come to the world’s attention. We will do more of that.”
However, a spokesman for the Syrian ministry of information, Bassam Abu Abdullah, questioned the report’s evidence, telling the BBC it was unclear where the information had come from or whether the photographs were “from Syria or from outside Syria”.
He said that investigators should be questioning Qatar, which commissioned the report and which backs the Syrian rebels.
He said he was “astonished” at the figure of 11,000 victims, saying it had not been raised before this report. “I doubt this report,” he said. “We should check these photos. Who are these people? Where are the names? From which prisons? Who is this person who has the authority to have these photos?”
He added: “If Qatar financed this report, there is no credibility because Qatar is one of the states who financed international terrorism and who sent killers to Syria.”
The Syrian government and the main exiled opposition alliance, the National Coalition, are due to send delegates to the Switzerland conference.
‘The torture is unimaginable, the pain endured is indescribable’
Professor Sue Black, director of the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at Dundee University, flew to Syria last week. Here, she explains how the expert team arrived at their conclusions and what they found.
We were a legal team of three and a forensic team of three. The very formidable legal team of Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC and Professor David Crane was tasked with establishing whether the witness – codenamed Caesar – was credible. And the forensic team of myself, Dr Stuart Hamilton and Stephen Cole was tasked with identifying whether the content of the images was consistent with Caesar’s testimony.
The legal team found him to be credible. The legal team had not seen the photographs and the forensic team did not know about the witness’s evidence. We kept the two separate until we came together.
The source told us that he witnessed individuals who were “starved to death”. Those are his words, strangled, beaten, tortured. Our evidence, having looked at the images, agreed with what he was saying.
Allegedly there are about 55,000 photographs and his testimony was that each body was photographed about three or four times. We agreed with that. That took it down to around 11,000 individuals. In the time that we were there, we could not look at all of them. We had about half the sample (25,000) available to us. We were unable to look at 25,000 in two days. So we dip sampled into a number of computer files.
We were aware that the background was consistent across all the files, which is consistent with it occurring in one place. The quality of the photographs were also consistent. And ultimately we had no alternative but to conclude that this is evidence of several thousand young men, who have been starved to death, beaten to death and tortured to death. They have been strangled and they have been executed.
It is absolutely horrendous. Looking at these starved remains was like going back in time and looking at concentration camps.
One of the photographs showed a body with what is known as tram-line bruising. It is what happens when someone hits you with a rod – metal rod or a plastic rod or a cable. These lines of bruises go all the way up his abdomen and all the way up his chest and they are in a perfectly parallel line. If someone was doing that to you, you would be moving. That tells us he was unable to move and the likelihood is that he was strapped down whilst he went through that torture.
It was most distressing. In this day and age, you really do not expect to be able to witness these sort of things on this sort of scale. It is very sobering. And the scale of it is just huge. That level of torture is almost unimaginable and the pain that these young men must have gone through, whoever they were, must have been indescribable.
I have been doing forensic work for over 30 years and this is the worse I have seen. I have worked in the Balkans in relation to war crimes investigations before and I have gone out and assisted in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami. The volume of deceased is not new to me, but the level of interpersonal violence is.
Kosovo was largely about gunshot injuries, which are not as personal as torture, and Thailand was accidental. This was really quite something.