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Is there a US response to the evidence of torture in Syria?

August 5, 2014 at 5:31 pm

Further evidence has been provided to the United States government on the Assad regime’s crimes against humanity, yet still, no accountability has been addressed by the Obama administration. A Syrian military police photographer anonymously called “Caesar” appeared on Thursday in a briefing in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for the US Congress, portraying the images of torture and killing taken from inside prisons in Syria.

Caesar, who appeared in disguise at the briefing, told the Congress that the Assad regime is holding 150,000 civilians under arrest; all of them are at risk of being tortured or killed by the government. He asked the United States to intervene militarily in Syria.

“The main thing Caesar asked for was justice for the victims,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, a senior political adviser and government relations director of the Syrian American Council, who helped coordinate the visit with the Department of State.

While in Syria, Caesar worked in the army taking photographs of bodies for the death certificates of regime opponents who were tortured and starved to death.

Last year, Caesar managed to smuggle 55,000 images of corpses he and his colleague had photographed out of Syria. Four or five photographs were taken of each body, the images therefore accounting for approximately 11,000 detainees who were tortured-to-death.

In January, three international war crimes prosecutors released a report based on Caesar’s images, accusing the Assad regime of the “systemic” killing of detained civilians from the start of the revolution in March 2011 until August 2013.

No real pressure was put on the Assad regime by the US at that time, as the world’s attention was focused on the failed negotiations between Al-Assad and his opponents. However, the Assad regime campaign continued its systematic murder without any demand for accountability by the US or the international community.

“We will see evidence of the Assad regime’s killing of at least 10,000 political dissidents between 2011 and 2013,” said the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Ed Royce, during the presentation of the images to the Congressmen. Earlier this year, the committee asked the United Nations to establish a war-crimes tribunal in regards to the crimes committed during Syria’s revolution.

“The killing continues today,” Royce added.

There was no audio or video recording allowed at the briefing to ensure Caesar’s identity remained anonymous.

“These bodies that we have [in the photos]… no one here can bring their life back to them, but I am here to tell you there are more than 150,000 people still incarcerated in the jails of Bashar Al-Assad and their fate will be the same fate as those who I have taken pictures of,” The Daily Beast reported Caesar telling Congress in the briefing through his translator.

“What is going on in Syria is a genocidal massacre that is being led by the worst of all the terrorists, Bashar Al-Assad,” Caesar added.

Some of the images are available here. (Caution: very graphic)

The US Department of State arranged Caesar’s trip to America, but did not disclose his real name to any of the members of Congress.

The Coalition for a Democratic Syria (CDS), a coalition of groups representing over 100,000 Syrian Americans, coordinated Caesar’s exchange and issued a statement on Friday thanking the US Department of State for their role in facilitating the visit. The CDS commented that Caesar’s visit included “a presentation to international human rights lawyers and officials at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC; a meeting with Senator John McCain in which the Senator received exclusive photos from Caesar’s portfolio; a public briefing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and information-sharing with forensic experts from the FBI.”

“[The images] offer some of the most heart-wrenching evidence of the unconscionable tactics Bashar Al-Assad employs to cling to power,” said National Security Council Deputy Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan on Friday.

Ghanem told MEMO that lately, there has been an argument in Washington calling for the US to work with Al-Assad as a partner against terrorism in Syria. When Caesar went to the White House, as Ghanem said, the Congress reiterated that they would not work with Al-Assad and reaffirmed that they viewed the moderate opposition as the best force for change in Syria.

“We feel that we dealt that argument a very severe blow with this trip,” Ghanem said.

In June, the Obama administration requested $500 million to aid the Syrian opposition but officials in the States fear that the arms would be smuggled into Iraq and across the region.

Ghanem believes that the Caesar’s visit has improved prospects for the administration’s requested $500 million, especially in the Congress. Nevertheless, he noted that he does not think a major change in Obama’s policy will occur unless Congress or the American people also response to these photos with action.

Any resolution against the Syrian regime in the UN Security Council had been faced with a veto from Russia and China. Consequently, neither the Security Council nor the UN can carry out any substantial action against Syria’s government and therefore the Assad regime cannot be held accountable in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“The United States will continue working through other avenues with our international partners to pursue accountability for the perpetrators of these crimes against the Syrian people,” Meehan noted in her statement.

In the meantime, the United State and other countries are going through Caesar’s images in search of evidence that any of their nationals might have been killed by the Syrian regime in which case, lawsuits against the perpetrators can be filed in the national courts of those countries.

“In this way, we do not have to wait for the ICC before beginning to hold the perpetrators accountable,” Ghanem explained.

The gruesome images of corpses show marks of starvation, strangulation and beatings, demonstrating that the Assad government has committed such atrocities. To date, Caesar’s images are the most conclusive evidence of the regime’s systematic and ongoing war crimes.

“For three and four days the torture never stops,” said Nizar, a previous detainee from Damascus, referring to the long periods of cruelt that he and other detainees were subjected to.

Nizar, who preferred to keep his last name anonymous for the security of his family in Damascus, said that there are huge numbers of detainees inside the intelligence branches in Damascus, describing the conditions as so overcrowded that detainees slept laying on one another. After three-months in detention, he was released and currently lives outside Syria.

“All types of torture are occurring,” he added.

According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC), the number of documented-by-name detainees is 54,181. The VDC Spokesperson Bassam Al-Ahmad told MEMO that they have at least 200,000 cases of arrests, “those are only the reported ones,” said Al-Ahmad, noting that most of the torture detainees were peaceful activists.

“Intimidation, humiliation and retaliation,” Al-Ahmed added were the aims of the process.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.