The Caesar photographs - of the bodies of men, women, and children who died while being held in detention by the Syrian state - were taken at two military hospitals near the Syrian capital of Damascus on orders of the government's intelligence services. There are clear signs of torture and starvation on the bodies.
The photographer, a former military policeman now code-named Caesar, defected from Syria and brought with him upwards of 55,000 such images (of 11,000 people) taken by himself and other military photographers between 2011 and 2013. The Caesar photographs have been exhibited the UN in New York, the US Congress and the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, the European Parliament in Brussels, and the UK Houses of Parliament in London.
There can be no doubting the veracity of the images or their origins.
A six-person team of internationally renowned war-crimes prosecutors and forensic experts was commissioned to assess Caesar and the photographs. They conducted a series of interviews with the former military policeman and found that he was “not only credible but his account was most compelling”. The photographs were forensically examined by a digital-image expert who established they had not been altered.
The inquiry team concluded that, taken together, the pictures and Caesar’s testimony constitute "direct evidence" of "systematic torture and killing" by the Syrian regime which “would stand up in an international criminal tribunal”.
The international NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW) conducted their own nine-month investigation, during which they interviewed former prisoners, defectors, forensic experts and families of the disappeared. One defector, a doctor who worked at two Syrian Ministry of Defence hospitals, told HRW
"Almost every day the Mukhabarat [intelligence services] would drive up and bring dead bodies with them. Even if a dead guy was missing his head, they demanded I write that he died of sudden death."
Upon the conclusion of their investigation, HRW’s Nadim Houry said:
"We are confident the Caesar photographs present authentic – and damning – evidence of crimes against humanity in Syria."
The FBI also examined the images, for more than a year, and likewise concluded that they had not been manipulated.
It would be wrong to imagine that the torture, killing and disappearing of detainees might be a relatively new phenomenon in Syria. That, horrific as it is, Caesar’s and other evidence might be indicative of an overworked and overwhelmed security apparatus, struggling to cope in the midst of a civil war, resorting to base methods.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when Bashar al-Assad’s father ruled Syria, more than 17,000 people disappeared into state detention, never to be heard of again.
The Caesar images and testimony are not examples of a recent phenomenon, but rather they appear to be irrefutable evidence of the continuation of a decades-old tried and trusted state method of dealing with real and imagined dissent, which long predates the current conflict and indeed the current regime.
That bodies are photographed and catalogued, and doctors are required to issue false death certificates, clearly indicates that killings are an integral and organised component of the Syrian state security apparatus.
The random nature of detentions in Syria is painfully illustrated by the story of 14-year-old Ahmad al-Musalmaini, who was held at a security checkpoint when an officer found an anti-Assad song on his phone. The boy was arrested and promptly disappeared into the system. Over the next year, members of Ahmad’s family paid more than US$14,000 in bribes to security officials to try to secure his release, but to no avail. When Caesar’s photographs of the dead were released, Ahmad’s uncle searched among them:
"I went directly to the folder of the Air Force Intelligence, and I found him. Oh, it was the shock of my life to see him there. I looked for him, 950 days I looked for him. I counted each day. When his mother was dying, she told me: ‘I leave him under your protection.’ What protection could I give?"
What, indeed. Protection, it seems, is in short supply for the innocents of Syria. It is estimated that more than 215,000 people have been detained by the regime during the current conflict. In nearly half the cases, relatives of the detainees have no idea of the whereabouts or well-being of their loved ones.
The Caesar photographic exhibition was hosted by GOAL at the RHA Gallery in Dublin on January 29.