FBI says Europeans tortured by Assad regime

Human rights groups hope new evidence can be used to prosecute Syrian president for war crimes

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Screenshot from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum video report on the photo exhibit 'Genocide: The Threat Continues'
Screenshot from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum video report on the photo exhibit 'Genocide: The Threat Continues'

A US State Department official has confirmed that a cache of photographs documenting the torture and deaths of civilians under Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime includes as many as 10 foreigners, and could be used to prosecute Assad for war crimes.

Stephan Rapp, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for war crimes, told Bloomberg on Sunday that several Europeans were identified during an FBI analysis of 27,000 photos that show the bodies of some 11,000 victims.

The digital images were smuggled out of Syria last year by a former military photographer who, for security reasons, was identified only as “Caesar.” The photos depict the torture, starvation and deaths of civilians while in detention during the ongoing civil war.

In an effort to identify the victims, the FBI began to compare Caesar’s photos with images from consulates and immigration databases from around the world.

“The group included multiple individuals who were non-Syrian, but none who had a birthplace in the United States, according to our information,” Rapp told the paper. “There were Europeans within that group.”

Rapp declined to disclose the nationalities of the Europeans identified in Caesar’s photos, but warned that there could be many other international citizens among the victims.

“It’s incredibly important for the international community to treat the fact that Europeans were tortured to death by the Assad regime with the same seriousness that they treated the fact that two American journalists were beheaded for going inside Syria and covering the suffering of the Syrian people,” Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying.

The ramifications could be a major boost to the stalled efforts to prosecute Assad for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

Calls for Assad to face charges of war crimes at the ICC have floundered since Syria is not a member of the court, thus requiring a referral by the UN Security Council — a move that would likely be vetoed by Russia.

While an indictment by a multilateral organization remains unlikely, in light of the new evidence, individual legal cases against the Assad regime could be brought to the International Court of Justice by the countries whose citizens were victims of torture and murder.

Caesar, in addition to other human rights groups working on indicting Assad, hopes that European countries will approach the killing of their citizens as confirmation that the Syrian president is not a trusted partner of the West in its campaign against the extremist Islamic State group, and must be removed from power.

Rapp said that out of the 27,000 photos, 4,800 were initially matched to images in US passport or visa databases. However, the lack of any personal information and the mutilated state of the bodies made identifying the individuals difficult.

According to Rapp, the FBI investigation is being continued with the help of government and private analysts who are working to produce more conclusive results, and promised that the State Department would continue to verify and expose atrocities committed in Syria.

The (graphic) images first emerged in January after war crimes prosecutors released a report concluding that there was “clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government” that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rapp has openly criticized the Assad regime in the past, and called Caesar’s evidence as proof of a systematic approach to atrocities not seen since the Holocaust. “This is solid evidence of the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen, frankly, since the Nazis,” he said.

“If it is as it appears thus far, we’re talking about more than 10,000 individuals being killed in custody over the period from 2011 to 2013, including largely men but also some very, very young men and boys and women… It’s shocking to me, as a prosecutor — I’m used to evidence not being so strong,” said Rapp at an event held at the Atlantic Council earlier this year, according to a Daily Beast report.

During a July testimony in front of the US Congress, Caesar said that upwards of 150,000 civilians were still being detained by Assad’s forces and — if the international community did not intervene — could face fates similar to those of the victims he photographed.

In October, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum opened an exhibit featuring a dozen of Caesar’s photographs, entitled “Genocide: The Threat Continues,” showing the effects of the torture, including electrocution, gouged-out eyes and removed genitals.

In December, the UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 202,354 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011.

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