If the Dead Could Speak

If the Dead Could Speak

Human Rights Watch
Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising in 2011, many have died in detention facilities run by the Syrian government’s notorious mukhabarat (security agencies).

In 2012, Human Rights Watch identified and mapped 27 of these detention centers around the country, many in the capital, Damascus. While accounts by released detainees and defectors consistently indicated that incommunicado detention and torture were rampant and detainees were dying in large numbers in Syria, the scale of abuse and deaths in detention remained unknown.

Then in January 2014, news emerged that a defector had left Syria with tens of thousands of images, many showing the bodies of detainees who died in Syria’s detention centers. A team of international lawyers, as well as Syrian activists, interviewed the defector, code-named “Caesar,” who stated that, as an official forensic photographer for the Military Police, he had personally photographed bodies of dead detainees and helped to archive thousands more similar photographs.

These photographs were taken apparently as part of a bureaucratic effort by the Syrian security apparatus to maintain a photographic record of the thousands who have died in detention since 2011 as well as of members of security forces who died in attacks by armed opposition groups. The exact purpose of the photographs is not clear. In an interview with a journalist, Caesar himself indicated that he “often wondered” about the reason but that in his view, “the regime documents everything so that it will forget nothing. Therefore, it documents these deaths…If one day the judges have to reopen cases, they’ll need them.”

In total, according to the international team of experts that prepared the first report on the collection, Caesar smuggled more than 50,000 images out of Syria on discs and thumb drives until he defected.

He entrusted these images to the Syrian National Movement (SNM), an opposition political movement. Members of that group formed the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees (SAFMCD), which took custody of the files. In March 2015, the SNM gave 53,275 unique files to Human Rights Watch, stating that these files represented the complete set of data Caesar collected. The group said that the photographs had not been altered except for some resizing that occurred as the photographs were digitally transferred. According to the dates on the files, the photographs were taken between May 2011 and August 2013, the month Caesar defected.


The Caesar Photographs

The Caesar photographs received by Human Rights Watch can be divided into three categories.

The largest category of photographs, 28,707 images, are photographs of people Human Rights Watch understands to have died in government custody, either in one of several detention facilities or after being transferred to a military hospital. What distinguishes this batch of photographs is that all the bodies in them have identification numbers, typically three separate numbers, either written directly on the body or on a paper that is placed on the body or held in the photograph frame. There are multiple photographs of each body, typically four to five but ranging between three to more than twenty. SAFMCD, which reviewed the entire collection and logged the photographs by individual body, found that these 28,707 photographs correspond to at least 6,786 separate dead individuals each with their own unique identification numbers.

The second category of photographs are images of dead army soldiers or members of the security forces. These photographs were also taken in the morgues of military hospitals. However, unlike the first batch, the cards on these photographs include the name of the person who died, and sometimes the date of their death. In many cases, their name is prefaced by the word shahid, or martyr, in Arabic, as well as by their military rank. In addition to the cards, their name, the word shahid, and their military rank also often appear in the file name.

The third category of photographs taken by the Syrian Military Police can be described as crime scene photographs taken in the aftermath of attacks and cover several categories of incidents including the aftermath of explosions, assassinations of security officers, fires, and car bombs. The name of the folder in which sets of photographs were saved indicates the type of incident, the date, and sometimes, the name of the victim. Human Rights Watch was able to confirm some of these incidents and killings, which were covered in the Syrian media at the time they occurred and provide further evidence as to the authenticity of the photographs.

This report focuses on analyzing the first category of photographs in greater detail.

The following photographs of are of people Human Rights Watch understands to have died in government custody, either in one of several detention facilities or after being transferred to a military hospital.

Deaths in Custody

All the photographs in the first category of the Caesar images—photographs of the bodies of those Human Rights Watch understands died in detention—were taken inside what appear to be rooms in morgues, or in a courtyard that Caesar identified as a garage of one of the military hospitals. Caesar told both an international team of lawyers investigating the photographs and the U.S. Congress that they were taken at Syrian government military hospitals. “What you see here is the garage of the military hospital,” he told Congress. “We used to use the morgue, but they were bringing way more bodies, so we decided to start using the garage.” Using satellite imagery and geolocation techniques, as well as the evidence of a defector from Military Hospital 601, Human Rights Watch confirmed that the courtyard photographs were taken in the courtyard of Military Hospital 601 in Mezze, Damascus. Folder names in the photograph collection, as well as photographs of medical reports and military judicial system orders included in the collection, indicate that Syrian military police photographers, in coordination with the military’s forensic medical officers, took the photographs at Military Hospital 601 and Tishreen Military Hospital, also in Damascus.

To understand what the identification numbers in the photographs referred to, Human Rights Watch reviewed Caesar’s testimony to the United States Congress, as well as reports compiled by an international team of lawyers who interviewed Caesar for three days and detailed his description of the numbering system. We also interviewed two defectors from Damascus security branches as well as a former conscript from the 601 Military Hospital and a former nurse from the Tishreen military hospital. Former detainees reported seeing numbers written on the bodies of dead detainees or on cards, before guards removed the bodies from security branches. Finally, Human Rights Watch reviewed leaked documents ordering the photographing and transfer of bodies, both from the Caesar collection and documents passed directly to Human Rights Watch by defectors. Based on the information gathered, Human Rights Watch believes that the three numbers correspond to:

Branch number: a number assigned to each security branch facility operated by Syrian intelligence services, e.g. Branch 215 (operated by Military Intelligence); Branch 227 (the Area Branch, operated by Military Intelligence)
Detainee number: a number assigned to each detainee by the security branch that holds him in custody.
Examination number or death number: a number assigned to each detainee by the forensic doctor of the military hospital, given at the time the doctor registered the death, prepared a medical report on it, and ordered a military photographer (such as Caesar) to photograph the body.

It is important to note that the Caesar photographs do not represent a comprehensive record of deaths in detention in the Damascus area in the period during which the photographs were taken and collected. While many detention facilities sent their dead to Tishreen and 601 military hospital, a defector from Syria’s State Security services who worked as a guard at the al-Khatib branch of State Security told Human Rights Watch that those who died in detention at the facility where he worked were transferred to Harasta military hospital in the northeastern suburbs of Damascus and not to Tishreen and 601 military hospitals where Caesar had taken the photographs. Moreover, the photographs are not a random sampling, but represent the photographs Caesar had access to and copied when he felt he could do so with relative safety. Therefore, the number of bodies from detention facilities that appear in the Caesar photographs represent only a part of those who died in detention in Damascus, or even in these particular facilities, during the 27 month period in which the military police and forensic medical authorities produced these photographs. Based on the sequences of the examination or death numbers, the Syrian Association for the Missing and Prisoners of Conscience (SAFMCD) believe that the Caesar photographs indicate at least 11,000 bodies were photographed in two of Damascus’ military hospitals between May 2011 and August 2013, when Caesar defected.

Verifying the Photographs: The Stories of the Victims

Human Rights Watch set out to answer three key sets of questions about the photographs of the dead detainees: 1) Are the photographs authentic? Are they really images of dead detainees? 2) If so, what caused so many to die? and 3) How did the bodies end up in military hospitals and what happened to the corpses afterwards?

To verify the photographs, Human Rights Watch conducted in depth investigations into the cases of 27 deaths in detention of people whose bodies appeared in the photographs. The investigations included examination of evidence provided by families of the deceased and fellow detainees. Human Rights Watch also examined photographs of the 27 detainees before their arrest and compared them to the photographs of their dead bodies smuggled out of Syria by Caesar.

The search for relatives of dead detainees whose photographs were included in the Caesar images was facilitated by the fact that in March 2015, several thousand photographs of the dead detainees were posted online by the SAFMCD, published in the Syrian electronic news source Zaman al-Wasl, and picked up by various other Facebook groups dedicated to people disappeared, detained, or killed in Syria. Though media outlets around the world had already covered the story of the Caesar photographs in January 2014, and published redacted or blurred versions showing groups of emaciated bodies, the March 2015 publication was the first time families could search for their relatives among the photographs. Many relatives of detainees, as well as activists and friends, spent days going through the photographs looking for missing relatives. Some of them contacted the SAFMCD directly, and after providing evidence that they were family members of the deceased, received the full set of photographs depicting their relative.

Human Rights Watch was able to verify 27 cases of detainees whose family members’ statements regarding their arrest and physical characteristics matched the photographic evidence. The 27 cases included those of a 14-year-old boy and a woman. Both these cases are described in this report. To help identify the 27 victims, Human Rights Watch researchers asked families for identifying characteristics including birthmarks, scars, and tattoos; noted and compared the dates of arrest and the date linked to the victim’s photograph; and sought out evidence from former detainees who saw the victim in detention.

In eight cases, former detainees saw the victims in detention, and in four cases, former detainees witnessed their death or saw their body. In some cases documented in this report, families obtained from the SAFMCD photographs showing their relative’s full body and were thus able to make positive identifications based on their clothing or other distinguishing marks not visible in the photographs available online. Out of the 27 identified cases, eight families consented to the publication of details of their relatives’ stories. These cases are outlined in this report.

In total, this report is based on 27interviews with family members of detainees who died in detention facilities, 37 former detainees, and four defectors who worked in Syrian government detention centers or military hospitals in Damascus.

Syrian civil society groups identified many more victims, in addition to those cases analyzed by Human Rights Watch. The SAFMCD, the group that initially published the photographs, told Human Rights Watch that more than 700 families got in touch with them saying that they recognized their missing relatives in the photographs of the dead detainees. Only one in ten families were willing to speak about their relative’s death publicly, for fear of reprisals against them or their family members that remained in Syria, according to SAFMCD.

Human Rights Watch also sought to verify the photographs through more technical means. While most of the photographs of the detainees lost their metadata when they were copied to be smuggled out of Syria, 271 photographs still had partial metadata indicating the four models of camera the photographs were taken with, as well as some dates. In July 2015, news reports emerged that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) analyzed a subset of the Caesar photographs, and found no evidence that they had been manipulated.

Finally, Human Rights Watch researchers also authenticated and reviewed a set of images of medical reports, death certificates, identity cards, and military orders included among the collection Caesar smuggled out of Syria. These documents provided further evidence the photographs originated from Syrian military hospitals, and that they were taken following written orders from Syria’s military judicial authority. Military orders confirmed that security branches transferred bodies to the military hospitals for registration and burial.

Causes of Death

Human Rights Watch shared a subset of 72 photographs, representing 19 victims including those profiled in this report, with Physicians for Human Rights for the purpose of forensic analysis. Physicians for Human Rights’ team of forensic pathologists reviewed the images for evidence of torture and cause of death. They found evidence of violent blunt force trauma, suffocation, starvation, and in one case due to a gunshot wound to the head. In some of the photographs Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights reviewed, detainees’ bodies showed large open head wounds, gunshot wounds, or dried blood coming from bodily cavities. Many of the photographs show emaciated bodies as well as marks of torture.

A doctor working for the SAFMCD (not a forensic expert) reviewed all 28,707 of the detainee photographs logging characteristics that he saw. According to his analysis, more than 40 percent of the bodies are emaciated, with sharply defined rib cages, prominent pelvic bones, and sunken faces. One woman and approximately 100 boys, whom the doctor identified by indicators, such as facial and body hair, appear among the images of the dead, according to the SAFMCD’s analysis.

To further understand how the detainees from the Caesar photographs may have died, Human Rights Watch investigated the conditions in Damascus security branches, including four of the security branches in which the largest number of photographed victims were held:

The notorious 215 Branch (operated by Military Intelligence), which many former detainees called the “Branch of Death”
The 227 or “Area” Branch (Military Intelligence)
The Air Force Intelligence Branch in Damascus, and
Branch 235 (Military Intelligence) known as the Palestine Branch.

We interviewed 37 former detainees as well as two former guards from Damascus security branches. To understand what medical treatment was available, how detainees were treated, and what happened to detainees after they died researchers also interviewed two former military officers who served at Harasta and 601 (Mezze) military hospitals, and a former nurse from Tishreen military hospital. In particular, Human Rights Watch interviewed defectors and nurses who had firsthand information about the numbering system used to keep track of detainees.

Authorities held detainees in inhumane conditions, keeping them in filthy, overcrowded cells for months or even years. Detainees said they were provided with such insufficient food that they slowly starved; one former detainee said he lost 35 kilos, nearly half his body weight, in just six months of detention. Two men interviewed for this report, who had been detained in the Palestine Branch, said they could wash two times a week by purchasing soap from their guards; all the others said they spent months without soap and that guards didn’t allow them to bathe. All detainees interviewed said they had almost no ventilation in their cells, which stayed overheated and humid. Some detainees said the heat and humidity was so high that their clothes disintegrated after a few weeks in detention.

With detainees weak from lack of food, air, and rest, and living in such cramped conditions, disease spread easily. The trauma of detention, as well as the torture many detainees underwent, also led to mental distress, including cases of serious mental illness. Former detainees we interviewed for this report, including two detained doctors, said the following causes of death in detention were common:

Gastrointestinal infections, sometimes involving severe diarrhea and dehydration,
Skin disease leading to infection,
Mental distress that led detainees to refuse to eat and drink, and
Chronic diseases (like hypertension, diabetes, asthma, or kidney disease) for which detainees did not receive the necessary medication or treatment.

Authorities provided detainees with grossly inadequate medical care in detention. Some witnesses said that sick detainees only received paracetamol, an over-the-counter painkiller, and even that only in severe cases. Others said that while doctors were sometimes available in some branches, the doctors also beat and abused detainees to the point that detainees chose not to seek their attention. A defector who spent over seven years as a guard in the al-Khatib branch of State Security in Damascus told Human Rights Watch he had to ask the head of the branch repeatedly to get even a single painkiller for a prisoner. A few detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said they were transferred to 601 or Tishreen military hospitals for treatment, but described abusive conditions in which guards handcuffed them to hospital beds, beat, and otherwise abused them. Defectors confirmed accounts of such abuses at these facilities.

Former detainees also described various types of torture in security branches including shabeh (suspending detainees by their wrists for hours or days); beating detainees on their heads or chests with PVC pipes, whipping with steel cables, electrocution, and burning. Detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that interrogators or guards in their branches beat detainees to death, hung them, or left them to die after severe bouts of torture.

Procedures After Death

After a detainee died, security branch guards transported the body to military hospitals where they would place it in a morgue or, when the number of bodies outstripped a hospital’s capacity, in an open-air garage. According to two defectors who served in two different military hospitals, after their facilities collected a group of detainees’ bodies, a forensic doctor would come to the morgue or courtyard and give each corpse a specific “examination number” (which appears along with a detainee’s detention facility number and a detainee number assigned by that facility in the Caesar photographs). Then the doctor would write a medical report, allow the body to be photographed by a military forensic photographer, and order conscripts to wrap the body in plastic sheeting. According to Fahed al-Mahmoud, a defector who served in the Harasta military hospital, these medical reports typically cited the cause of death as heart failure. Caesar, according to the international legal team that interviewed him, also said that regardless of actual cause of death medical reports only cited two causes of death: heart failure or respiratory failure. Human Rights Watch reviewed three death certificates that listed one of these two causes, but none that cited other causes of death.

A defector from the 601 Military Hospital, where hundreds of the bodies from the Caesar photographs were taken, told Human Rights Watch he personally witnessed two of these “processing sessions,” and helped carry bodies into trucks after they finished. Human Rights Watch also reviewed photographs of written orders from security branches and from military officials requiring military hospitals to examine the bodies and send them for burial. Some of the images of these documents were included among the Caesar photographs, others were provided independently to Human Rights Watch by a defector.

The two defectors Human Rights Watch interviewed who served at military hospitals said that soldiers transported the bodies to mass graves located on military land in the greater Damascus area, including near the Najha cemetary, near the Third Brigade military base, and near the Dhamir military airport. Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm these claims.

Families interviewed for this report spent months or years searching for their sons, their spouses, and their relatives and friends. Many of them paid millions of Syrian pounds in bribes to various government and security officers. Though most families did not approach the notorious security branches for fear of being arrested; those who did register official demands for information received almost no information as to how their relative had died. Some received death certificates that simply stated the deceased had died of heart or respiratory failure. None of the families interviewed for this report received the bodies of their relatives for burial.

To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, no independent investigation has been launched into the death of a prisoner in government custody, nor has the government published the results of any internal investigations it may have conducted. International human rights and humanitarian groups and the United Nations have repeatedly called upon the Government of Syria to grant them access to the security branch detention centers, to improve detainees’ conditions, and to cease torturing detainees. Despite these repeated calls, torture remains a constant in the detention centers. The systematic patterns of deliberate ill-treatment and torture that Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups have documented point clearly to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity.

The evidence of the Caesar photographs together with the specific, organized, and repeated processes for processing the bodies of detainees documented by Human Rights Watch and others also indicate a state policy of failing to investigate deaths in detention and to alleviate conditions leading to such deaths, and indeed a policy of enabling and facilitating mass deaths in state custody. Given that the bodies were photographed and registered weekly at military hospitals in the Syrian capital, the heads of detention facilities and military hospitals, as well as their commanding officers, knew or should have known of these mass deaths. Any acts within the detention centers that were part of a state policy of murder, torture or otherwise intentionally causing great suffering, could amount to a crime against humanity, and commanders who knew or should have known about the crimes and failed to prevent or prosecute them could be criminally liable.

Crimes against humanity can be committed both in times of peace and in situations of armed conflict and consist of specific acts committed on a widespread or systematic basis as part of an “attack on a civilian population,” meaning there is some degree of planning or policy to commit the crime. Such crimes include murder, torture and inhumane acts “intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”

Liability for the commission of crimes against humanity is not limited to those who carry out the acts, but also those who order, assist, or are otherwise complicit in the crimes. Under the principle of command responsibility, military and civilian officials up to the top of the chain of command can be held criminally responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates when they knew or should have known that such crimes were being committed, but failed to take reasonable measures to stop them.

In a January 2015 interview with Foreign Affairs, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded to allegations that prisoners have been tortured and abused by Syria, saying: “if there’s any unbiased and fair way to verify all those allegations, of course we are ready. That would be in our interest.”

Since the end of October, a group of countries known as the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, have held meetings in Vienna to push for renewed peace negotiations in Syria. Human Rights Watch calls on these governments to ensure that these negotiations put an immediate end to rampant abuse and torture in detention facilities by pushing for the release of all arbitrarily held detainees and demanding access for international monitors to all detention centers in Syria. As a minimum part of any transitional process in Syria, all individuals against whom there is credible evidence of involvement in torture and other serious crimes should not have positions of authority in or over the detention system.

The UN Security Council should follow up on its Resolution 2139 which strongly condemned the arbitrary detention and torture of civilians in Syria, as well as kidnappings, abductions, and forced disappearances, by demanding that Syria grant recognized international monitors access to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification. Furthermore the Security Council should adopt targeted sanctions on officials credibly implicated in abuses and should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Syrian and international groups working on the disappeared in Syria should establish a unified system for logging all cases of missing persons in Syria, as well as information regarding unidentified human remains or mass grave sites. It should act as a repository of all available information, including from the Caesar photographs, regarding the fate of the disappeared in Syria in order to facilitate future identification and repatriation procedures.

Russia and Iran, as the most prominent backers of the Syrian government, in addition to supporting the recommendations above, should pressure the government to publish the names of all individuals who died in Syrian detention facilities immediately, and to take all feasible steps to inform families of the deceased and return the bodies to their relatives.

The Syrian government should provide immediate and unhindered access for recognized international detention monitors to all detention facilities, official and unofficial, without prior notification, including those mentioned in this report. The government should ensure that children are not detained together with adults and are only detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time. The government should release all arbitrarily detained persons including persons detained solely for their political beliefs, and should immediately halt the practice of enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and detention, and the use of torture.

All countries committed to ending mass deaths of detainees in Syria, as well as widespread torture and abuse of detainees, should exercise universal or other forms of jurisdiction as provided under international and domestic law to investigate and, evidence permitting, prosecute Syrian military and civilian officials alleged to have been involved in criminal offences against detainees in Syria in violation of international law.

Editorial Staff

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