The Caesar photographs

Seeing the evidence of mass torture and killing in Assad’s prisons

Event notes by Bronwen Griffiths and Brian Slocock

The Caesar photographs are a cache of digital photos of corpses taken out of Syria by a defector, codenamed ‘Caesar’, who worked as a forensic photographer within the Syrian prison system. The 55,000 images smuggled out on flash drives show evidence of industrial-scale atrocity.

This event was held at the House of Commons on 28th October 2015, hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria, chaired by Roger Godsiff MP.

A number of the Caesar photographs were on display, and a panel of guests spoke about their significance.

Stephen Rapp, outgoing US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, formerly of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (by video):

These photos are important to lay the foundation for future accountability in Syria, Stephen Rapp said. The evidence provided by Caesar has been examined by the FBI and no inconsistencies found. These are real images of people starved and eviscerated by the regime—eyes gouged out, bones broken, limbs beaten, skin burned. There is evidence so far of 11,000 tortured and killed in this way by the regime. This crime is continuing, with 100,000 Syrians currently in custody.

Who are these victims? What was their supposed crime? Some parents have come forward to identify the victims. Security services pick up young people who come from certain areas and villages known to be opposed to the regime. The regime’s target is the moderate centre, trying to force us into a choice between the torturers and the radical extremists. But this is not a choice the West should accept. We must do everything we can to bring about justice for these victims and those who follow.

Mouaz Moustafa, Executive Director, Syrian Emergency Task Force, Washington DC:

Mouaz Moustafa provided background on Caesar: He was a forensic photographer before 2011. In early 2011 he was asked to attend two military hospitals in Damascus to take pictures of 15 individuals—men and women—who had obviously been starved and tortured to death. For two and a half years he risked his life by smuggling photographs of torture victims out of Syria in order to give families closure. In August 2013 the risk to his life became more extreme and he escaped.

When the images were released there was a ‘never again’ moment but the reality is that this torture continues to this day. The regime acts with impunity. There has been outrage but no action.

These arbitrary arrests are one of the reasons Syrians are fleeing their country in large numbers. The regime is not just killing one ethnic group but all groups. Arbitrary arrest and torture are but one part of the toolbox of killing by the regime, which also includes barrel bombs on civilian areas, chemical weapons and starvation.

Farah, teacher, aid worker, refugee. Farah asked to be identified only by her first name in order to protect her family:

Farah worked as a teacher in Syria. After the uprising broke out, she became an aid worker. When her friends were detained by the regime she decided to leave for Lebanon, but she was arrested at the border and taken to a prison in Homs.

She spent 36 days in detention. She was called a terrorist because of her opposition to the regime, and subjected to beating, electric shocks, threats to her children and threats of rape. But she believes that she was treated less severely than others held with her because she has a British passport.

She claims her jailers were “not normal.” She asked one man, “How can you do what you are doing?” He got angry, but he also showed her the pills he was taking, saying “because of these.”

Farah worries about what the children are experiencing in Syria, the violence and constant fear of death. What is it doing to them? What would the UK do if it was our children suffering in this way?

Frederic Hof, Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; formerly Special Representative on Syria to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; formerly adviser on Lebanon and Syria to Special Envoy George Mitchell:

“We are here today because of one brave man who saw evil and tried to stop it.”

Hof talked about how Caesar had hoped that when the US government saw the photographs, they would come to the help of the Syrian people. He emphasised that “No one will deny that mass homicide has taken place—and is still taking place—in Syria, but because it is called mass homicide and not genocide, the UN Security Council does not act, it only condemns.”

He noted that most policy discussions on the options in Syria emphasise the risks; but, there is rarely discussion of the risks of inaction, which can be very high as demonstrated by the rise of ISIS. He concluded by saying that the images provided by Caesar form a mirror into which we in the West may gaze at our leisure. But do we like what we see? If we do not, let us act.

Professor Steven Heydemann, Chair in Middle East Studies, Smith College, formerly Vice President of Applied Research on Conflict at United States Institute for Peace:

Prof. Heydemann referred to the 2009 UN Human Development Report on Security in the Arab World. This proved controversial because of its focus on cases where the state poses a threat to its own citizens. The Caesar photos are a potent example of this.

The US policy on Syria since 2011 has been one of ‘containment,’ aiming merely to limit the regional impact of events in Syria. This policy, Heydemann asserted, has proved a disaster and it is now almost obscene to use the word.

What is needed is a policy aimed stabilising the situation by ensuring the safety of civilians, public order and good governance. The way to begin to achieve this is through de-militarised safe zones backed by a Coalition of NATO members.

He realises that this is controversial but he argues that Russia’s involvement in Syria makes this even more urgent.

Questions and comments from the floor

Commenting from the floor, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a security consultant for NGOs working in northwest Syria, argued that it was feasible to create a safe zone in this area, and noted that the Russian intervention had sparked off consideration in the US of a wider range of options. He described the situation in the refugee camps that he had visited recently as “at a tipping point,” meaning that people in the camps are on the verge of abandoning any hope of going home and shifting their attention towards moving westwards.

There was a lengthy session after the event in which questions were put to Hof and Heydemann by the press and others. Hof indicated that the Administration had a blind spot when it came to Syria; from the very start of the fight against ISIS it had acknowledged the necessity of having a legitimate political regime in place in Iraq, but refused to extend that to Syria. He stressed that it remained necessary to establish a framework for civilian protection in Syria, defined as “making it impossible or extremely difficult for the Assad regime to continue its mass homicide.”

Heydemann argued that in one respect the Russian intervention was an opportunity, as it focused Western attention on the need to do something in Syria to counter Russia’s initiative. He suggested that the Russian intervention had been done very hastily and with little consultation outside the top Russian leadership. In his view a Western initiative to create a safe zone in northwest Syria could be implemented in a such a way as to avoid direct confrontation with Russia and make it difficult for Russia to oppose.

Further reading

‘They were torturing to kill’: inside Syria’s death machine, Interview by Garance le Caisne, 1 October 2015.