“Just about every detainee in these photographs was someone’s beloved child, husband, father, or friend, and his friends and family spent months or years searching for him,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “We have meticulously verified dozens of stories, and we are confident the Caesar photographs present authentic – and damning – evidence of crimes against humanity in Syria.”
Countries meeting about possible peace negotiations in Syria – including Russia, as the Syrian government’s biggest backer – should make the fate of the thousands of detained people in Syria a priority, Human Rights Watch said. Concerned countries should insist that the Syrian government give international monitors immediate access to all detention centers and that Syria’s intelligence services must stop forcibly disappearing and torturing detainees.
In August 2013, a military defector code-named Caesar smuggled 53,275 photographs out of Syria. Human Rights Watch received the full set of images from the Syrian National Movement, a Syrian anti-government political group that received them from Caesar. The report focuses on 28,707 of the photographs that, based on all available information, show at least 6,786 detainees who died in detention or after being transferred from detention to a military hospital. The remaining photographs are of attack sites or of bodies identified by name as of government soldiers, other armed fighters, or civilians killed in attacks, explosions, or assassination attempts.
Among the victims identified are a boy who was 14 at the time of his arrest, and a female activist in her 20s. All of the 27 families or relatives interviewed said they spent months or years searching for news of their loved ones, in many cases paying huge sums to contacts and middlemen employed in various government or security agencies. Only two eventually received death certificates which said the deceased had died of heart or respiratory failure. None received the bodies of their relatives for burial.
In addition to granting international monitors immediate access to all of its detention facilities, the Syrian government should release all arbitrarily detained and political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said. Russia and Iran, as the main backers of the government, have a particular responsibility to press Syria for immediate and unhindered access for recognized international monitors of detention.
On August 2, 2012, when Ahmad was 14, he returned to Syria from Lebanon, where his family had sent him for safety reasons, to attend his mother’s funeral. He was traveling in a minibus with five other people.An officer at a checkpoint took the passengers’ phones and found an anti-Assad song on Ahmad’s. The officer dragged Ahmad into a small room at the checkpoint, a fellow passenger told the family a day later. The rest of the passengers continued on in the minibus without him.Ahmad’s uncle, Dahi al-Musalmani, was a judge for 20 years before he fled the country in March 2013. Dahi told Human Rights Watch that he went to see several government officials after Ahmad’s disappearance. He learned that Ahmad was likely in Air Force Intelligence custody, and paid more than US$14,000 in bribes attempting to secure Ahmad’s release, unsuccessfully. He eventually fled to Jordan after family members told him he was wanted for arrest.
When the Caesar photographs were released, Dahi searched for Ahmad among them:
Rehab al-Allawi, a Damascus resident originally from Deir al-Zor, was an engineering student at Damascus University before the uprising in Syria. Hers was the only photograph of a woman, among the Caesar photographs of detainees’ bodies.Rehab was about 25 when the Raids Brigade, a special unit of the military police, arrested her on January 17, 2013. Rehab worked in one of Damascus’s local coordination committees – loose networks of activists – assisting internally displaced people who had fled Homs.After her arrest, the family sought information through personal contacts within the Syrian government. They paid more than US$18,000 to various officials in the Syrian military and security services to try to get information about her and to secure her release but their attempts did not succeed.A former detainee, Hanadi, told Human Rights Watch that she was detained with Rehab for more than three weeks in the 215 Branch of State Security.
“We spent 24 days together in the cell, next to each other,” Hanadi said. “She wanted to see her parents. She would always speak about her brothers and sisters. She was scared for her family.”
Hanadi was transferred to Adra Prison after three and a half weeks. She never saw Rehab again.
In March 2015, after the Caesar photographs were published online, a cousin called the family and asked if Rehab’s photo might be among those released. “She looks just like Rehab,” the cousin said.
Though the family recognized Rehab, they asked former detainees who had seen Rehab in prison for confirmation, as her appearance had changed during her detention.
“If you took pictures of the detainees now, you would see people who looked like those that are in the Caesar photographs, only they would be alive….The ones who died are the lucky ones.”
–Dr. Sami, former 215 Branch detainee“When I went inside the cell, someone knew me. When he lifted his head, [I saw] his teeth were broken. He was severely, severely emaciated. He had very weak and short hair. I said, ‘You know me?’ He said, ‘Yes, I’m your nephew Mohammed. I’m the one with the supermarket next to your clinic.’ He started to cry. He hadn’t seen himself, he’d been detained for ten and a half months.”
–Dr. Karim Mamoun, former 215 Branch detaineeQuotes from Defectors
“I know this place from the photographs stone by stone, brick by brick. I lived there 24 hours a day. I had to carry [the bodies] myself.”
–Suleiman Ali (not his real name), former conscript who worked at the 601 Military Hospital“When the corpses arrive, [the forensic doctor, who is also an army officer] asks how many corpses there are, and then she asks [conscripts] to wrap them up. She gives each body a third number on a bandage. She writes on the register: the number of detainee, the branch number, and the hospital number [examination number]. Then they are put in the [morgue] refrigerator.”
–Fahed al-Mahmoud (not his real name), military defector who served at the Harasta Military Hospital in Damascus and witnessed bodies being registered
This report was prepared by Human Rights Watch.