Ian Black Middle East editor
A Syrian army photographer who catalogued thousands of cases of torture and murder in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons has spoken out for the first time about witnessing atrocities that have been described as crimes against humanity and led to calls for the president’s prosecution.
The photographer, identified only by his codename Caesar, is now a refugee in Europe and fears he will be “eliminated” for the most damaging exposure of Syrian state violence since the uprising began in 2011, according to a book by the French journalist Garance le Caisne, extracted in the Guardian.
“I had never seen anything like it,” Caesar said. “Before the uprising, the regime tortured prisoners to get information; now they were torturing to kill. I saw marks left by burning candles, and once the round mark of a stove – the sort you use to heat tea – that had burned someone’s face and hair. Some people had deep cuts, some had their eyes gouged out, their teeth broken, you could see traces of lashes with those cables you use to start cars.
“There were wounds full of pus, as if they’d been left untreated for a long time and had got infected. Sometimes the bodies were covered with blood that looked fresh. It was clear they had died very recently.”
Caesar’s claims were first published by the Guardian and CNN in February 2014, along with statements by three eminent international lawyers that said his photographs, smuggled out on USB sticks before he defected with the help of an opposition group, showed the “systematic killing” of about 11,000 detainees in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to August 2013.
The story fuelled demands that Syrian officials be investigated for war crimes. Assad responded later that the allegations proved nothing because the publication and authentication of Caesar’s story was financed by the Gulf state of Qatar, which was committed, then as now, to his overthrow.
Two weeks ago Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by the Syrian government between 2011 and 2013, the same period covered by Caesar’s testimony.Russia has used its UN security council veto to block any investigation of the Syrian government in the international criminal court or the creation of an ad hoc court for Syria. But allegations of war crimes persist. A three-year operation to smuggle official documents out of the country produced enough evidence to indict Assad and 24 senior officials, according to an international investigative commission.
“Faced with these crimes that offend the human conscience, this bureaucracy of horror, faced with this denial of the values of humanity, it is our responsibility to act against the impunity of the assassins,” the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a statement sent to AFP.
The timing of the French move is significant because it coincides with calls by Russia, Iran and some European countries to negotiate with Assad because only he is capable of fighting the jihadis of Islamic State. Britain recently softened its position by saying the Syrian president could remain in a transitional government for six months, but it said he would still have to face justice.
“The terrorists of Islamic State proclaim their atrocities on social networks; the Syrian state hides its misdeeds in the silence of its dungeons,” wrote Le Caisne. “Before Caesar, no insider had supplied evidence of the existence of the Syrian death machine. And these photos and documents were damning.”
Caesar believed that the Syrian security services felt “invulnerable”. He told the author: “They can’t imagine that one day they will be called to account for their abuses. They know that great powers support the regime. And they never thought that these photos would get out and be seen by the wider world.
“In fact, I wonder if the security service bosses aren’t more stupid than we think. Busy repressing demonstrators, looting the population, killing, they’ve forgotten that their abuses were being documented. Look at the chemical attack on Ghouta [in August 2013, which killed 1,400 people]. Those responsible knew there would be evidence of what they had done – yet they still fired their rockets.”