Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Writing an autopsy of Assad’s victims

The Daily Star
Tuesday, January 28 2014
By Michael Glackin

Sixty-nine years ago this week, soldiers of the Red Army liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in southwest Poland.

That the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the site of what is thought to be the largest mass murder in history, should have coincided with the release of a report exposing the atrocities of Bashar Assad’s regime, was not lost on one of the report’s authors.

Speaking to me last week, Sue Black, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist and co-author of the report, which accused the Assad regime of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, said: “It is ironic that we are so close to the Auschwitz anniversary. Because examining the photographs of those starved remains was like going back in time and looking at photographs of the concentration camps. I have been doing forensic work for over 30 years and this is the worst I have seen. It is absolutely horrendous.”

Considering that Black led the British forensic team that exhumed the mass graves of Kosovo in 1999 and later identified victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, you can appreciate this is not hyperbole.

The photographs of prisoners killed by the Syrian security services and smuggled out of Syria by “Caesar,” an Assad regime photographer and defector, are, she insists, evidence of the torture and brutal murder of some 11,000 people.

Black is a scientist. She relies on hard evidence to reach conclusions, and for that reason retains an objective, unemotional detachment from the dark deeds her skills lead her to investigate. It is her painstakingly clinical approach that makes her conclusions about the suffering of those shown in the report all the more damning.

“In Kosovo, horrific as it was, one could understand the conflict side of things, and the victims were killed by gunshots. In the Asian tsunami, it was an unfortunate natural disaster. But here, the intensity of the one-to-one infliction of injury is horrendous. The deliberate personal suffering that has been inflicted on the victims is truly shocking.”

The images, which Black carefully examined, came from a single location inside Syria, and since more than half of the photographs were taken by a single cameraman, it is realistic to assume that they only represent a fraction of the regime’s victims. Yet even allowing for the fact that the images are just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of prisoners killed by the regime since the uprising in Syria in 2011, the murders are still not on the scale of Auschwitz in size.

But Black’s comparison comes from the systematic nature of the torture and killing, what she calls the “incredible organization, the coordinated, cold blooded, efficiency” of the process of torture and death. It is this that she says bears the chilling resemblance to the Auschwitz example.

Black told me more than 60 percent of the bodies showed evidence of starvation, “not thin, but clinically starved so there is almost zero body fat.” She said ligature marks found on necks of victims indicated death by slow strangulation, with a garrote-type implement that resembled the fan belt on a car. Many bodies had been severely beaten, and some had their eyes gouged out. Others showed signs of electrocution, while some were burned.

“You do not starve quickly, it takes time,” she said. “Then there is the brutality of the beatings. But beyond that, there is the cost to the families of those young men. Like a stone thrown into the water, there is a ripple effect, it impacts on families, and beyond families onto an entire nation.”

The evidence provided by Caesar should increase the likelihood of Assad facing a war crimes tribunal – he is of course already facing investigation by war crimes prosecutors over the Sarin gas attack that killed up to 1,300 civilians last August. It has also lead to renewed calls for the West to finally act, and acknowledge that talk alone will not achieve its avowed aim of ending Assad rule.

But don’t hold your breath. For one thing, the United States has been aware of the Caesar images since last November. The British government couldn’t confirm when it first learnt of the photographs, but Foreign Secretary William Hague said they were “compelling and horrific,” and that the perpetrators must be held to account. But the reality is that the United Kingdom is compelled to do nothing.

Just four months ago parliament, which includes many of those expressing horror and faux sympathy last week – such as Labour leader Ed Miliband and his foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander – led the parliamentary vote against British involvement in Syria.

The West balked at a meaningful display of its outrage at the use of chemical weapons and by doing so aided and abetted an evil regime, enabling it to carry out more atrocities. Other young men in the regime’s prisons will be tortured and starved and slowly murdered today or tomorrow, and their abused bodies will be photographed by other Caesars. We can blame the likes of Russia or Iran, but the truth is, many in the West do not care about Syria.

What the Red Army found at Auschwitz confirmed beyond doubt that World War II, the destruction of the Nazi regime, was a necessary and noble war. On a visit to Auschwitz in 2005, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said: “The story of the camp reminds us that evil is real. It must be called by its name and must be confronted.”

Cheney’s words harken back to a time when the civilized world matched its words with deeds. Everyone agrees that the Caesar images reveal a deep-rooted evil. The failure to confront it today means that tyranny and fear is prevailing. As the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke succinctly put it: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 28, 2014, on page 7.

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