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Opinion Op-Ed

War crimes in Syria?

We don't know their names but we know their numbers, and we can see the evidence of their torture, thanks to a former crime-scene photographer who says he became a reluctant documenter of murder "on an industrial scale" committed by Bashar Assad's regime in Syria.

The photographer, code-named Caesar to protect his identity after his defection from Syria, says he worked in the military police for 13 years documenting crime scenes and accidents. But after the civil war began, Caesar says, Assad's government put his skill-set to a different use: photographing the bodies of detainees who had been killed by the regime.

For three years, he says, his only job, along with others on his team, was to photograph corpses, sometimes as many as 50 a day. Only the security services knew the identity of the victims, but each body was given two numbers with which they were photographed. One was a reference to the security service responsible for the victim's detention and death; the other, given after the body's arrival at the military hospital, was to falsely suggest that the death had occurred at the hospital.

The elaborate documentation process, Caesar says, was to prove to authorities that the executions had been carried out and that none of the bodies had been accidentally released to the families, who were falsely informed that their loved one had died of a heart attack or breathing problems.

The bodies in the images tell another story. They are emaciated. They have oozing ulcers. They are bruised and show deep marks from the cords that bound them.

All of this was revealed last week — just as the Geneva II negotiations on Syria were beginning in Montreux, Switzerland — in a report commissioned by the London law firm Carter-Ruck and paid for by Qatar, a strong backer of anti-Assad rebels. To determine the credibility of Caesar and his photos, the law firm put together a respected group that included three former war crimes prosecutors and an experienced forensics team. The report they produced is not a definitive pronouncement of crimes but a confirmation that evidence exists that would probably hold up in court.

It is clear that the Assad government will not willingly give up power to a transitional government, the stated aim of the talks in Switzerland. But the report does provide some leverage if the international community is willing to use it.

Currently, both sides seem determined to kill as many people as it takes, in whatever manner necessary, to achieve or hold on to power. They need to be reminded that there will be accountability for their actions. What is the point of winning control of Syria — on either side — if, after achieving victory, you are whisked away to face trial in The Hague?

Previous calls to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court have gotten little traction, in part out of concern that it would dig Assad in deeper. Also, because Syria is not a party to the ICC, the court can establish jurisdiction only through a resolution by the United Nations Security Council, which has not been feasible because veto holders Russia and China consider the conflict an internal matter, and the council's remit is to act on threats to international peace.

But with a death toll of more than 100,000 and a conflict that has spilled into neighboring countries, creating instability across the Middle East, the situation is unquestionably international. And the report offers evidence that would clearly support a criminal action. Russia or other backers of the Assad regime would be equally entitled to fund scrutiny of evidence establishing innocence of the regime or atrocities by the rebels, but they would need to recruit a similarly eminent panel.

The report's authors concluded that the regime's need to photograph the approximately 11,000 people who were killed strongly suggested that the killings were "systematic, ordered and directed from above." They concluded that the photographs might well support a finding of crimes against humanity and war crimes in a court of law.

In the absence of military intervention to oust Assad and stabilize Syria, the international community should seize the moment to pressure image-conscious, Sochi-sensitive Russia to allow a Security Council referral to the ICC.

Let's hope that the brave efforts of Caesar will be a catalyst to stop the carnage against innocents in Syria. Hail Caesar.

Colleen Graffy is a law professor at Pepperdine University and director of its London law program.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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