(Vatican Radio) A gruesome and terrifying cache made up of some 55,000 photographs of victims of torture perpetrated by the Syrian regime exposes the horror that took place between 2011 and 2013 in the prisons of Damascus.
Entitled “Codename Caesar: Syrian detainees victims of torture” a selection of those images produced by ‘Caesar’ – a former forensic photographer of the Syrian Military Police, make up an exhibition that has been shown at the United Nations in New York, at the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and in major European cities.
It is currently showing in Rome and Mouaz Moustafa, Executive Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force who presented the exhibition to the press, told Vatican Radio that work is ongoing – not only to try and identify the victims in the photographs, but also to try and obtain some justice.
Mouaz Moustafa explains that ‘Caesar’ was officially part of a team of forensic photographers working for the Syrian President behind closed doors. But driven to act by the terrible things he had witnessed, Caesar transferred the pictures of mutilated dead bodies from police computers on to USB sticks between 2011 and 2013. These were smuggled abroad - and then posted on the Internet, where they are now available for all to see.
Moustafa specifies that “when we talk about 55,000 images we are not talking about 55,000 people: often there are multiple photos of the same person. However we are still talking about thousands and thousands of people of whom, so far, it has been possible to identify only 780”.
He explains that identification is particularly difficult due to the horrific torture the victims have undergone and the terrible condition of their bodies.
“In the exhibition we see some of the less brutal picture, but often the bodies were heavily deformed by torture, and therefore it is really difficult to recognize who are the people who died” he says.
Moustafa says that for many of the relatives of the victims, it comes almost as a relief to find out what happened to their next-of-kin. Not only because they can grieve, but also because they can put an end to the blackmail they are subjected to as military police continue to ask for money in exchange for better treatment of the prisoners.
The ‘Caesar Team’ – from ‘Caesar’ the fictitious name given to the former military photographer who has since fled his homeland - continues to plow through the photographs and reconstruct this dark chapter in Syrian history, and is also working to try to obtain legal proceedings for crimes against humanity:
"Yes, they all want justice, punishment, legal action” he says.
Unfortunately, he says, he has to ask these families if their spouses, their relatives, their children have a second citizenship: “a Swedish or Canadian citizenship perhaps. Often the answer is "no" and when that is the case I cannot but say ‘then we can do nothing.’
That’s because – he explains - a Syrian citizen cannot file a claim before the International Criminal Court because it will be vetoed – particularly by Russia.
“Consequently, this is proof for them that nobody cares what actually happens in Syria and to Syrians” he says.
Moustafa – who is a Syrian exile himself – says that he is powerless to seek justice for some of his own relatives who were captured and ended up in Air Force Military Police detention.
He says that at least he is trying to do something, to help the 300 thousand people who are still in Assad’s prisons by getting the story out and hopefully instigating an international investigation.
“As a Muslim, what I hope, is that the prayer of the oppressed is heard by God” he says.
Since the Syrian government first cracked down on the peaceful ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in 2011, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that over 215,000 people have been detained – but it is unknown how many of them are still alive.
President Assad repeatedly denies his forces make use of torture, however, in 2008 he issued a decree which ensures immunity for government forces.
The ‘Caesar’ photographs have helped spark an international investigation into the actions of Bashar al-Assad for crimes against humanity. Caesar is reportedly the first Syrian to supply conclusive evidence about what was going on in the government detention centers.
The war alone has left more than 300,000 dead, while millions more have become refugees because of the non-stop bombing of cities, towns and villages.