“If torture is a state secret,
impunity inevitably follows…”
Will we ever see the remaining torture photographs from Abu Ghraib and Bagram? In late October, federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein told White House lawyers that they have until December 12th to explain their rationale for keeping secret any of the roughly 2,100 photos showing “enhanced interrogation” (torture) of U.S. prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photos in question have never been seen by the public and, according to The Guardian, “are said to be even more disturbing than the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs that sparked a global furor.”
The Obama administration had previously announced its intention to release the photos, but changed its mind, with Obama stating that release of the photos would “further inflame anti-American opinion and…have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.” Think about that one for a moment: If we expose the military’s coverups of past misconduct, it will only make them more likely to cover up misconduct in the future. How would you feel if one of your kids tried that one on you?
According to Mr. Obama in a White House press briefing, “any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.” Yet this is the President who has refused to authorize prosecution of any of the government officials responsible.
According to Jessica Schulberg in the New Republic, the United States was relatively slow to sign on to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and Obama – despite early support for legislation that would outlaw U.S. torture of prisoners “regardless of their geographic location,” has signally failed to put this interpretation of the Convention into force. The New York Times, she points out, has reported that “Obama is considering…affirming Bush’s notion that the U.S. is only obligated to prevent torture within its own borders.” (This interpretation, of course, provides both the Bush and Obama administrations with the primary rationale for the establishment and continued use of the prison/interrogation facility at Guantánamo.)
Schulberg quotes a report from the organization Open the Government criticizing Obama’s position: “All of the violations of the Convention Against Torture…flow from a single source: the decision to allow the United States’ intelligence services to classify evidence of torture, even the victims’ memories of it. If torture is a state secret, impunity inevitably follows.”
Assuming that Hellerstein decides the Obama administration must release some photos to the public, and assuming that Obama decides to comply with the order, the judge has said that he will hold a hearing in January. It’s anticipated that the administration will seek to withhold as many as possible. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has sought release of the photos for the past ten years, according to attorney Marcellene Hearn: “The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened in our detention centers abroad…We will continue to press for release of the photos in the courts.”
Note: OpenTheGovernment.org, has filed a “shadow report” with the United Nations Committee Against Torture which will hold a review in Geneva on November 12 and 13 “to examine the United States’ record of compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Artwork: Justin Norman /cc/flickr, from Common Dreams: “
“People make choices. Choices make history.”
I’ve borrowed the headline above from the website of the invaluable educational resource Facing History and Ourselves. Nothing could better characterize the actions of the courageous Syrian dissident who risked his life, family, and future to bear witness to the brutality of the Assad regime.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will be hosting a small display of the devastating images taken by the anonymous Syrian military photographer who was assigned to take photographs of more than 10,000 tortured and murdered victims of President Bashar Assad – as described in my post of earlier this year, Code Name Caesar. At extraordinary risk, Caesar managed to escape with his family to Europe, taking with him more than 55,000 photos documenting the carnage. Some of the photos can be viewed on YouTube.
Interviewed by Brett Zongker for the Associated Press, Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said that the twelve images selected “show dozens of bodies piled atop one another. Others show the effects of deprivation and torture, including electrocution, gouged out eyes and removed genitals…They show a side of the Syrian regime that hasn’t really been seen…When you’re confronted with these images, they’re impossible to ignore.”
“You don’t wither away and die like that on a battlefield” Hudson told the AP. “You don’t get that in a matter of days or weeks. Its months and months of deprivation that causes the human body to wither away like that.”
Perhaps anticipating the denial and disbelief that some viewers might have when confronted with such pictures, the reporter notes that “the museum relied on forensic examinations of the photographs conducted by the FBI and by former prosecutors and forensic experts of the International Criminal Court to verify the authenticity of the images.”
When my wife and I visited Chile last year, we were shown a number of sites where torture was carried out under the U.S.-supported Pinochet regime, as well as documentation on others. One of the things that surprised and shocked me – in addition to the sheer number – was the realization of how many torture centers were located in ordinary homes, in ordinary neighborhoods. It simply was not possible for people not to have known what was going on. I believe this is intentional: you are supposed to know.
In a Sunday New York Times article last year, Eric Lichtblau wrote that one of the things that had shocked even experienced scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was the sheer number of Nazi “ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories” that researchers had been able to document, beyond the well-known names. In fact, he notes, there were some 42,500 such installations throughout Europe:
The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.
Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site — the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new research makes painfully clear.
As in Chile, there is no way that citizens of those countries could have been unaware of what was happening in their midst, and it is survivors like Caesar who bear that message from parts of the world that are less open to us.
Other Resources: This may be an appropriate time to recognize some of the other holocaust museums and memorials around the United States (and the world.) A website from the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has a directory of many of these, while Wikipedia lists a total of 44 in the United States alone. The Holocaust Museum’s Confront Genocide page links to a variety of resources on current situations of torture and abuse around the world.
NY Times’ apologizes for failure to
acknowledge torture…ten years too late
I never thought I had anything in common with Sarah Palin except a fondness for salmon, but when I read the New York Times’ recent defense of its decade-plus refusal to acknowledge torture by U.S. forces, “lamestream media” was the first (non-obscene) phrase that came to mind.
The paper’s Executive Editor, Dean Baquet, writes: “Over the past few months, reporters and editors of the Times have debated a subject that has come up regularly ever since the world learned of the CIA’s brutal questioning of terrorism suspects: whether to call the practices torture.” Over the past few months? Most of the rest of the world – including most of its media – have had little trouble identifying what was going on as torture. Did it really take more than ten years for the Times to figure it out?
And the phrase “mealy mouthed” is the only description I can come up with for the rest of Baquet’s column, in which he apologizes for his paper’s refusal to face reality until years after it might have made a difference in the national debate.
The Times’ abdication might not seem to matter much, but the reality is that if the nation’s “paper of record” had been willing to call out the Bush administration for what it was actually doing – even if only to use the word “torture” in its coverage – it might well have changed the nature and level of public discourse on the issue. It might have saved lives, and it might have helped save the soul of the nation.
This kind of reporting by the Times and other media might also have made it more dangerous, politically, for Obama to refuse to seek prosecutions of those who were responsible. After all, it’s one thing to let your predecessors off the hook if all they’re guilty of is authorizing “harsh interrogation methods,” rather than torture.
There’s something else missing from the Times’ “apology” too. It’s the part my parents taught me always had to be included: the part that goes “…and I won’t do it again.”
…and its shifting headlines of a few
weeks ago are equally disturbing
In its first online account of the killing, by Israeli rockets, of four boys playing on a Gaza beach, the New York Times headlined its story “Four Young Boys Killed on Gaza Beach,” and went on to say, “Gaza officials and witnesses said they were killed in an Israeli attack.” This was an accurate and restrained statement of the facts that were available at the time. By the time the story made it into the paper’s final, print edition, however, the headline had become “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and into Center of Mideast Strife.” What does that even mean?
I have no problem with the final Times article by Anne Barnard which appeared under that headline and is a relatively objective account of the facts as they were known at the time of publication, but nothing in it explains its strange, bland title. (Note that the last part of the online address of the Barnard article, which often reflects a piece’s original or “working” title, is quite different. It reads: gaza-strip-beach-explosion-kills-children.html. It would be interesting to know who at the Times suggested, or ordered, the change.
Barnard’s article includes a map, which indicates that the first child was killed on what appears to be a sandspit or pier (possibly the “structure…used by Hamas” mentioned below, but the other three were killed roughly 30 seconds later, as they were running away across the beach, suggesting that they were specifically targeted by the naval attack.
Alon Ben-David, a well-sourced Israeli military affairs analyst, said on Israeli television that the first beach blast targeted a structure that Israel believed was used by Hamas. He said the second blast might have been aimed at the running children, perhaps mistaken for militants. He added that given the military’s technologically advanced surveillance equipment, “it is a little hard for me to understand this, because the images show that the figures are children.”
And now, as I’m wrapping up this article, the news is coming in that the Cairo peace talks have collapsed after Israeli delegates refused to lift the blockade. Three rockets were allegedly fired into Israel, and Israeli forces have resumed shelling Gaza.
An excellent resource paper from the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania details the horrendous toll taken by firearms each year in this country, and looks at some of the causes and consequences of that fact for what we still refer to as American civilization.
There’s no doubt that one of the primary factors in the enormous toll taken by guns in this country each year is their sheer prevalence. With almost one gun per person (97.0 per hundred residents) the United States has almost twice as many as the next cluster of contenders, Serbia (58.2) and Yemen (54.8), and the numbers go down steeply from there. (Fourth place goes to Switzerland at 45.7, but note that most adult men there, as part of the national militia, are required to keep their government-issued rifles at home. However, they are forbidden to keep ammunition for the guns, which would only be issued in case of national emergency.)
Having just read Katie Johnston’s excellent Boston Globe article, “Vacation not Included,” over my breakfast coffee, I thought I’d go out on a limb and speculate that some of the free-floating aggression that seems to characterize the U.S., and feed into our high rates of firearm suicide and murder, might also have to do with the fact that the United States is alone among twenty-one of the world’s wealthiest nations in requiring no paid vacations – that’s none, zero, nada. And, no surprise, it primarily affects poor people. Johnston reports that, while 90% of the top quarter of U.S. earners receive paid vacations, only 49% of the bottom quarter do.
In this regard, the United States falls in line with India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and a handful of island nations that don’t require employers to offer workers paid time off. France, on the other hand, mandates 30 paid vacation days a year for all workers; Scandinavian countries offer 25. US citizens in Puerto Rico get three weeks off a year.
I spent some time juggling the numbers, but I’m no statistician (any volunteers to help out?) Doesn’t it make sense, though, that the stress of having to work 52 weeks a year just to hang onto a job – and sometimes being unable to do even that – might make people a little bit hostile.
When paid vacation legislation has been proposed, Johnston notes, it has routinely been shot down: “Some conservative commentators have called the proposals socialism; others say they would create a nation of slackers: ‘From the reaction we got, you would have thought we were proposing the end of Western civilization,’ said John De Graaf, executive director of the paid-leave coalition Take Back Your Time.”
De Graaf has produced a short film on the disappearance of vacation time in the United States, The Great Vacation Squeeze, which can be previewed on YouTube. A Yosemite National Park ranger says in the film that 20 years ago, 80 percent of visitors stayed overnight, while today’s average visit is less than five hours. The complete documentary is available from Bullfrog Films.
New publication supports recovery
from gun violence-related disabilities
A new book available through the Transitions Foundation of Guatemala focuses on recovery from disabilities which result from gun violence. Transitions is an amazing grassroots group, based in Antigua, that I’ve supported for many years – since I first saw a film about their work in my film distributor days. Run almost entirely by people with disabilities themselves, it began as a project to modify first-world wheelchairs for third world conditions (dirt roads and cobblestone streets, no curb cuts – you get the picture) but has expanded into other disability-related issues as well.
While the disabilities of many of those Transitions serves are the result of accidents, congenital birth defects, and other causes, gun violence is a huge contributor. This is, of course, true not just in Latin America but in many areas throughout the world − not least the United States. You can order a new book, Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery from the Surviving Gun Violence Project. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Transitions Foundation, but it’s a bit pricy, so you may want to see if your university or local library will make the purchase.
Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery “has chapters on victims’ rights, traumatic injuries, rehabilitation and recovery, social protection, and case studies on Canada, India, Guatemala, Somalia, and South Africa. Shorter pieces highlight spinal cord injury in Haiti, the 2011 victims’ law in Colombia, the plight of a South African prisoner with gunshot-related paralysis, gun violence and masculinity, and much more. Profiles of survivors are woven through the book. An annex details 56 international standards relevant to a rights-based approach to respond to survivors of armed violence.
“This resource is directly relevant to anyone working in violence reduction, human rights, trauma, rehabilitation, social protection, gender justice, development, post-war recovery and associated concerns.”
Jail Sentence for Doctor Who Waterboarded his Daughter
In mid-April, author and former pediatrician Melvin Morse was finally convicted and sentenced for waterboarding his young daughter. He will serve three years in prison, with two years of probation to follow. Morse, whose medical license had previously been suspended, repeatedly held his young daughter’s head under a faucet as punishment (though his defense counsel unsuccessfully tried to pass it off as washing her hair.) In July of 2012, neighbors had seen him grab her by the ankle and drag her home across a driveway, after she had tried to escape to a neighbor’s house. It was during the investigation that followed that his use of water torture came out.
Morse’s abuse of his daughter had apparently gone on for some time with the knowledge of her mother, who pled guilty to misdemeanor endangerment. The court is allowing her to have supervised visits with her daughter, who is in foster care.
Morse had become a best-selling author with his research and writing on “near death” and “paranormal” experiences. He has been interviewed on television by Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, as well as profiled on PBS and in Rolling Stone. His books have included reports of near death experiences by children, though he claims that he was “merely disciplining” his daughter, not experimenting on her.
I’ve also posted previously about the 2010 case of Washington state Iraq veteran Joshua Ryan Tabor, who was arrested for waterboarding his 4-year-old daughter “because she refused to recite the alphabet.” According to neighbors Tabor had “anger management issues.” Police had been called out when he was reported walking around the neighborhood wearing battle gear and threatening to break neighbors’ windows. Tabor received a two-month slap-on-the-wrist sentence.
In a more recent incident that I have so far only found reported in the New York Daily News, a couple in Belgium have repeatedly been accused of imprisoning and waterboarding their four children, beating them with iron bars, and subjecting them to a variety of other horrors over a period of several years. The story notes that teachers became alarmed at the condition of the children and their clothes and notified authorities, who placed the children in foster care — but evidently only for two months.
And Huffington Post carried a story from last year, of a Montana man who waterboarded not only his own two children (9 and 12 years old), but two neighbor kids as well. He claimed the abuse was not meant as punishment, but as “a learning experience.” Though he did spend a little over two months in custody pending trial, the man then made a deal with prosecutors for a suspended sentence on four counts – misdemeanor counts – of child endangerment. According to court documents, “His girlfriend at the time said he broke her wrist and some fingers when she tried to stop him from waterboarding his sons. She said the man straddled each boy with his hands over the child’s face and mouth, and dumped water on their faces to simulate drowning.”
So what is going on here? At one level, it’s no doubt true that there have always been some parents who abuse their children, and most of us agree that none of the explanations that have been advanced for such abuse make it in any way acceptable. What’s behind child abuse in general is a long discussion that I may revisit in future posts.
But what “abuse” means has changed over time. It was not terribly long ago that “spare the rod, spoil the child” was widespread parenting gospel. Not every parent practiced it – maybe not even most – but few would have risked publically criticizing a neighbor who did, short of serious, visible injury to the child. Prosecution was rare and, as we have sadly come to realize, real damage, physical as well as psychological, was sometimes done.
Severe physical punishment by parents hasn’t disappeared, but it’s frowned upon and it’s less common. But the legitimization of waterboarding, by the Bush administration – not to mention its glamorization in the popular film Zero Dark Thirty – may, at least in the minds of some, have made it seem like this particular form of “discipline” is no big deal. The Bush administration did it…and defended doing it. The Obama administration doesn’t do it anymore, they say, but has announced that, though it’s perhaps regrettable that things like that occurred, no one should be prosecuted. For all practical purposes, waterboarding – and perhaps some other weapons in the arsenal of “enhanced interrogation” techniques – are still on the table for any future administration to dust off and put into practice for the next “existential conflict” that comes along.
Rock Band Bills Pentagon for Use of Music as Torture
Just a couple of hours after uploading my recent post about music as a weapon of torture, I found out that a Canadian band has actually sent a bill to the Pentagon for using their music to torture prisoners. According to Steven Hsieh, writing for The Nation:
Skinny Puppy, an industrial rock band from Vancouver, wants $666,000 in royalties for the use of their music “as an actual weapon against somebody.” Keyboardist cEvin Key says the band learned that its songs were played at Guantánamo from a former prison guard, who happens to be a fan. “I am not only against the fact they’re using our music to inflict damage on somebody else but they are doing it without anybody’s permission.”
“We heard through a reliable grapevine that our music was being used to musically stun or torture people,” Key, the group’s founder, told The Independent, “so we thought it would be a good idea to invoice the US government for musical services.” The journal noted that “despite the band’s aggressive sound, they said they had never envisioned their music being used in such a way.” Skinny Puppy is also said to be thinking about suing the U.S. Defense Department.
“Asked how he felt about their songs allegedly being used in the detention camp, Key replied: ‘Not too good. We never supported those types of scenarios…Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us.’”
Both the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music for interrogation. In his Nation article, Hsieh cites a Der Spiegel interview with Ruhal Ahmed, who was detained without trial at Guantánamo and says that he suffered extensive music torture there. Interrogators reportedly shackled his hands to his feet and his feet to the ground, forcing his body into a squat, while music blared for days. Describing that experience to Der Spiegel, he said, “You can’t concentrate on anything. Before that, when I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain. You lose control and start to hallucinate. You’re pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side.”
Revelations about music as torture go back almost to the beginnings of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A CIA spokesperson at the time was quoted by MTV.com as saying that the music was used only for “security purposes, not for punitive purposes — and at levels far below a live rock band.” According to an AP article in Today/Music, however, the tactic has been common in the U.S. so-called war on terror, and used on hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. “Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the U.S. military commander in Iraq, authorized it on Sept. 14, 2003, ‘to create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock.’”
Other artists who have objected in recent years to having their work appropriated by the military and CIA include groups like Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails, as well as Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf. Yes, even Sesame Street tunes have been deployed in Guantanamo interrogations by our military, not to mention that ultimate in high-tech weaponry, Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I love you, you love me,” also written by Cerf. A 2012 documentary by Al Jazeera follows Cerf “while he learns exactly how his music has been used to torture the men held in that infamous legal abyss.” See the trailer for the 52-minute documentary.
In a 2009-10 Reprieve campaign called “Zero dB,” some of these groups struck back. “Taking issue with their music reportedly being blasted at ear-bleeding levels in an attempt to break uncooperative terror suspects,” noted The Associated Press, “a diverse and growing coalition of musicians including R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg is demanding that Obama close down Guantánamo.” According to BBC News, R.E.M. announced their participation in the coalition, saying, “We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of these torture tactics without their consent or knowledge is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.”
…and nothing has changed.
What Would You Call it if Not Torture?
My email inbox today included an online petition campaign from the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is trying to get legislation out of committee to end the practice of shackling women during labor and delivery. While several jurisdictions have already outlawed this practice, in at least 30 states including Massachusetts, women may be – and often are – handcuffed, shackled, or otherwise restrained during childbirth. An article by Christina Costantini on the digital network, Fusion, notes that the American Medical Association has called the practice “unsafe, medically hazardous, and barbaric.”
While none of the sources I checked referred to this practice as torture, I don’t know what else you would call a procedure that causes severe psychological distress, physical pain, and emotional humiliation – and has no rational necessity.
As Pat Nolan writes on the website of the Justice Fellowship, “In the case of pregnant inmates, there is little chance of escape…women in labor are hardly capable of leaping off the bed and escaping.” She cites the video testimony of an Arkansas inmate, Shawanna Nelson, incarcerated for passing a bad check. Nelson’s attorney, Cathleen Compton, describes the scene like this: “The officer is in there the whole time, with a gun, OK? So now you have a woman who’s delivered a nearly ten-pound baby, and there’s an officer with a gun standing by…What’s the chain for? Why’d they need to chain her? I just can’t wrap my mind around that.” (See the video at the bottom of this post.)
Costantini writes that “cases involving immigrant detainees are particularly controversial, since some detainees haven’t committed any crime beyond being in the country without status, or crossing the border without authorization.” She cites the cases of two women in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County Arizona:
“Both women, who were in jail for immigration-related offenses, say that they were shackled to their hospital beds with a leg restraint before and after they gave birth, without their husbands and in the presence of a prison guard. Chacon says that she was restrained even as she gave birth.
“Mothers in some jails are permitted ongoing access to their newborns in the days and months after they’ve given birth, but both Mendiola-Martinez and Chacon say they that was not the case for them. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.”
You might be inclined to discount this story, given Maricopa County’s reputation for extreme insensitivity to human rights, but there are countless similar accounts, from all sections of the country including – as noted in the first paragraph above – liberal, progressive Massachusetts.
(Poster image from the website of the Strong Families Movement via ACLU of Massachusetts.)
Music as Torture
The latest issue of Torture, the quarterly journal of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, has an unusual focus: music as a means of torture — yet sometimes also as a strategy of resistance.
“Despite the tendency to focus on music’s benign and positive role, we are confronted today with clear disclosures of its role in torture and human rights violations. Recent revelations of music’s use in the detention and interrogation centres of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ have underlined music’s potential to wound and cause suffering…Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib have attracted global media attention, but by no means are they unique cases. Is it music in itself or the high volume and repetition that transform it into torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment…?”
“Can the use of music in detention be beneficial for the prisoners,” ask the edition’s editors, Anna Papaeti and M.J. Grant, in their introduction, “or is it always aligned with an intention to subdue, break, and often ridicule them?”
All but one of the articles in the journal focus on uses of music for purposes of punishment or torture. The exception, by Johann Buis, looks at the positive use of song and dance by Nelson Mandela and other prisoners in South Africa’s Robben Island prison during the apartheid period. “He suggests that music and dance formed an internal cultural grounding for the political prisoners,” write the editors, “which not only enabled their survival in prison, but was also instrumental in shaping public policy later on when Mandela chose forgiveness instead of retribution during his term as president.”
All articles in the current issue of Torture, are available free online, as are back issues from the journal’s archive. You can also sign up to receive email notices of each new issue, or to subscribe to the print edition.
While you’re on the IRCT website, check out the Testimonies Wall for first-hand stories from survivors of torture around the world.
“Torture is widely prohibited — and widely practiced,” writes Kenneth S. Pope in his valuable article, Psychological Assessment of Torture Survivors. “Those who conduct psychological assessments of people who have been tortured face complex challenges in reaching conclusions that are valid and useful.” The essay sets out to provide guidelines to achieving accurate assessments, that can lead to appropriate and effective treatment. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this resource before, but it has been updated somewhat, so is worth bringing to your attention again. Ken offers the article free online, but notes that it has also been published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Volume 35.
(The photos in this post are from the IRCT Testimonies wall – see above.)
Smuggled Photos Document
Torture and Murder of 11,000 Syrians
A recently revealed trove of more than 55,000 photographs, smuggled at great risk out of Syria, documents the torture and murder of thousands of defenseless prisoners under President Bashar al-Assad. The images are particularly chilling because – like the photos documenting the crimes of the Nazi concentration camps or of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison – they seem so coldly bureaucratic. You can almost imagine the instruction sheet:
- Ensure that all ID numbers are in proper sequence
- Arrange the subject with all marks of torture clearly visible
- Take five photos from different angles (time est. 15-30 minutes)
- Repeat 11,000 times
The location and identity of the photographer himself, currently living under the code name “Caesar,” are secret – although the Syrian president and his agents clearly know who he is. Caesar’s former responsibilities had been documenting crime scenes and accidents for the military police but, as reported by the online magazine worldcrunch.com, “when the revolution started in 2011, he was entrusted with a whole new task: take photographs of real or supposed opponents who had been tortured to death or executed in cold blood in the government’s prisons.”
When he could no longer stomach the assignment, the magazine reports, Caesar joined the rebellion. It took almost a year before he and his family – and the photos – could be smuggled out of the country, but the devastating pictures have now been authenticated by an internationally recognized panel of legal and forensic experts, who have also attested to Caesar’s reliability as a witness.
Often naked or covered with rags, the bodies bear traces of different types of torture: laceration, strangulation, electrocution, mutilation. On most of the chests, numbers written with a marker identify the victims. For others, it’s a piece of cardboard placed at their feet: “It’s the number that’s given to the detainees when they’re arrested and when they’re pronounced dead,” explains Emadeddin Rachid. “The numbers follow each other,” he says. “It’s assembly-line killing.”
Rachid is one of the Syrian opponents of al-Assad’s regime who were instrumental in getting the roughly 55,000 photos – as well as the photographer and his family – out of the country. “Killing its opponents is the regime’s routine,” explains Rachid. “Registering torture is nothing more than the continued pursuit of the routine.”
According to CNN, the images “paint a horrific scene. Stomachs, faces and even legs are concave – sunken, rather than convex. On some torsos, bruising and bleeding is so severe that the victim’s skin is a mosaic of black, red, purple and pink. Oblong and parallel wounds, a mix of bruises and torn skin, line one man’s chest and torso, covering every inch of the victim’s body from neck to pelvis.”
The British newspaper, The Guardian, suggests that the report’s publication “appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.” Any firm action resulting from the already divided and acrimonious conference, however, seems unlikely.
“The evidence could underpin a charge of crimes against humanity, without any shadow of a doubt,” said Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and one of the authors of the report. Unfortunately, as the CNN article also notes, “Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. The only way the Court could prosecute someone from Syria would be through a referral from the United Nations Security Council.” But as long as Russia — which has veto power over Security Council decisions — continues to support Assad, that’s not going to happen.