Middle East

Images of Syrian torture on display at UN: ‘It is imperative we do not look away’

وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ اللَّهَ غَافِلًا عَمَّا يَعْمَلُ الظَّالِمُونَ ۚ إِنَّمَا يُؤَخِّرُهُمْ لِيَوْمٍ تَشْخَصُ فِيهِ الْأَبْصَارُ

مُهْطِعِينَ مُقْنِعِي رُءُوسِهِمْ لَا يَرْتَدُّ إِلَيْهِمْ طَرْفُهُمْ ۖ وَأَفْئِدَتُهُمْ هَوَاءٌ

“Do not consider Allah to be unaware of what the wrongdoers perpetrate. He is merely deferring them to a Day on which their sight will be transfixed, rushing headlong – heads back, eyes vacant, hearts hollow.”

(Ibrahim, 14:42-43)


Graphic exhibition of photographs showing the victims of atrocities carried out by Assad regime goes on display at UN headquarters

Raya Jalabi in New York

Images of tortured, bloodied and bruised bodies go on display in the glittering halls of the UN in New York for the next 10 days, to remind staff “not to look away” from the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The graphic exhibition of 30 photographs has been sponsored by 15 UN member states. Caesar Photos: Inside Syrian Authorities’ Prisons, which depicts torture and atrocities committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad during the civil war, will be displayed in a busy corner of the UN building in New York..

Though some details are blurred, the photographs show death in stark reality: women and children – though mostly men – tortured, starved, dead.

Though warning signs are posted next to the photographs, the shock registered by some passers-by would perhaps lead to suggestions that they were too graphic for the august UN setting. However, the setting was precisely what several of the sponsors were hoping for.

“We know that it is far easier to walk rapidly down this corridor, far easier to look away,” Michele J Sison, the US deputy representative to the UN, told the gathered crowd of diplomats and journalists. “These images are the graphic depiction of how the Assad regime treats its citizens. It is imperative that we at the United Nations not look away.”

The photographs were part of a cache of 55,000 smuggled out of Syria on flash drives last year by “Caesar”, the code name given to a former Syrian military photographer who defected. Caesar had been tasked with taking pictures of the corpses of those who died inside facilities run by the Assad regime. The thousands of images were taken between 2011 and 2013, and according to forensic analysis depict 11,000 deaths. Caesar and his team recently began posting photos from the cache of victims’ faces on Facebook, to help families and prosecutors identify their missing relatives.

The photographs were brought by Caesar to the US last July with the help of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, an NGO who helped organise his escape. Caesar first brought the images to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington (where 10 images were recently exhibited in the Museum’s Genocide Prevention Center), seeking to learn how best to preserve and archive the images and preserve them for future prosecution.

Later that month, Caesar testified before the US Congress. The photographs were given to the FBI and the office of the American ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, Stephen J Rapp.

“There is no doubt of the authenticity of these photographs,” Rapp told the Guardian. “The FBI has found no trace of forgery.”

The pictures show 27 men (some elderly), two children and one woman in various positions, almost all displaying signs of prolonged starvation. Some had their eyes gouged out, others had flayed or badly bleeding skin. One body was entirely charred. But all of the photographs had identifiers embedded within them and the numbers of regime facilities where the people had been killed.

As a result, Rapp, who will be stepping down from his post in the next few months, said his office and the international community was gathering evidence far stronger than for almost any previous tribunal, including those of Charles Taylor and Slobodan Milošević.

“The [Assad] regime is a particularly rich trove,” Rapp told the Guardian. “What other government do you know of who would torture its citizens to death and put identifying information of where the person was tortured … They’ve provided this fantastic evidence.”

The exhibition at the UN consists of two dozen images selected from the roughly 55,000 photographs taken in Syria by a former military police photographer. Facebook Twitter Pinterest

The UN exhibition comprises 30 images selected from the roughly 55,000 photographs taken in Syria by the former military photographer Caesar. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

“The fact that the Syrian authorities ordered the pictures to be taken in order to verify that the services had actually killed the person they reported as dead is an indication of the regime’s intentional, systematic and repeated crimes against its own population,” the Belgian representative, Pascal Buffin, said.

The displaying of Caesar’s photos comes as the world’s attention has moved from Assad to the threat of extremist groups such as Islamic State (Isis), said Najib Ghadbian, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ representative to the UN.

But Ghadbian reminded the crowd that in the past year the Assad regime has killed 32,507 people – 75% of whom were civilians. In contrast, Isis has killed 3,657 – 85% of whom were military targets.

“People have heard of Caesar,” Ghadbian told the Guardian, “but the detainees as a component of the Syrian conflict have not been highlighted as a serious issue.”

A conservative estimate would place the number of Syrians being held in Syria’s prisons at 150,000, Ghadbian added, but this number could be as high as 230,000. In 2014, the regime arrested about 7,000 people – including children – with a further 9,000 missing, Ghadbian said.

“They all might be facing a similar fate to the pictures we see.”

Despite the arresting nature of the photographs, their presence in the UN is symbolic, and one that those present would like to see directed towards a political and juridical solution. A proposed security council resolution to refer Syria to the international criminal court was struck down by two votes last May. However, in a radical change in strategy, UN war crimes investigators will next week publish the names of suspects involved in perpetrating the atrocities committed throughout the Syrian war.

“In the case of Assad, our enemy’s enemy is a greater enemy,” Rapp said. “He’s been responsible for the kind of things that have led to the rise of the extremists … Forgetting that responsibility is something we can’t do – but getting to accountability is not easy.”

“It’s hard for Syrians to still have faith in this organisation,” Ghadbian told the Guardian. “But for us, for many of us, knowing that this is going on means we have to continue.”