21 Jan 2014

Geneva II: does ‘smoking gun’ threaten Syria peace talks?

As a team of international war crimes prosecutors releases images appearing to show evidence of systematic killing in Syria, Channel 4 News asks if this week’s peace talks in Geneva are at risk.

Warning: footage on this page is of a graphic and distressing nature. The images are taken from a report commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar – which supports anti-Assad rebels – and is being made available to the United Nations, governments and human rights groupsssad rebels

The peace conference set to begin on Wednesday will include the first talks between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents.

But hopes of a breakthrough are negligible at a time when fighting has escalated and neither side shows any sign of retreating from its demands or being able to end the war with a victory.

One western diplomat said: “At best, Geneva II will reconfirm agreements made during the first Geneva conference, call for ceasefires, maybe prisoners swap and so on.

“At the same time, those taking part in the talks are de facto giving legitimisation to Damascus. They are talking to Assad’s government on the other side of the table. And so the show would go on while Assad stays in power.”

Humanitarian consequences

Around a third of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes, many to refugee camps abroad. Half are in desperate need of international aid.

The country at the heart of the Middle East has been carved up on ethnic and sectarian lines, with neighbours and distant powers lining up to arm and fund rival factions.

This is a smoking gun… Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence. David Crane

The bleak humanitarian consequences of the war were illustrated starkly in photographs of the emaciated and abused bodies of detainees, released in a report by London law firm Carter Ruck, hired by Qatar – made available to the Guardian and CNN.

Top prosecutors and forensic experts said that the photos smuggled out of Syria were “clear evidence” of mass killing and torture.

Tens of thousands of photos, taken by a photographer who has now defected, appear to show emaciated, bloodstained corpses bearing signs of torture.

Some had no eyes, while others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.

The military police photographer’s job was to record the deaths of those in custody from March 2011 until August 2013.

‘Clear evidence’

The three prosecutors who examined the evidence – who were prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone – found the evidence credible, after 10 days of examination and interviewing the photographer, known as “Caesar”.

They looked at some 55,000 digital images, which appeared to record evidence related to 11,000 victims.

The inquiry team said it was satisfied there was “clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government.

“It would support findings of crimes against humanity and could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime.”

President Assad (R)

‘Criminal Assad’

Ahead of the talks in Geneva, a senior member of Syria’s opposition group the National Coalition, said it would demand the removal of “criminal” President Assad.

Speaking on arrival in Switzerland ahead of peace talks, Badr Jamous, secretary-general of the National Coalition and member of its negotiating team, told Reuters:

“We are here to fight a diplomatic battle to achieve the objectives of the Syrian revolution and the desires of the Syrian people.

“We will not accept less than the removal of the criminal Bashar al-Assad and changing the regime and holding the murderers accountable.”

The images indicate that this regime does not deserve less than being sent to stand trial. Badr Jamous, National Coalition

Referring to images taken by the Syrian military police photographer, Mr Jamous said: “The images that we saw in the last few days indicate that this regime does not deserve less than being sent to stand trial in front of the International Criminal Court.”

Mr Jamous planned to meet UN officials ahead of the ministerial conference opening in Montreux on Wednesday, which will be followed by direct negotiations with the Syrian government in Geneva on Friday.

The talks have been given little chance of success in ending Syria’s civil war. President Assad said the only subject to discuss should be fighting terrorists, the label he uses for his armed opponents.

“If we wanted to surrender we would have surrendered from the start,” Mr Assad told Russian MPs in Damascus, according to Interfax news agency.

The Syrian presidency later said the comments reported by Interfax were “inaccurate”, without giving further details.

‘Smoking gun’

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN, the chairman of the panel, Sir Desmond de Silva, insisted that the experts had carried out an impartial inquiry.

“Ultimately the validity of our conclusions turn on the integrity of the people involved,” he added.

“This is a smoking gun,” David Crane, one of the report’s authors, told CNN. “Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence – the photos and the process. This is direct evidence of the regime’s killing machine.”

Mr Crane explained: “In Sierra Leone I had 1.2 million human beings that were destroyed but I could not match them to names and incidents,” David Crane said. “Here we have the photographs, the photographer and the reports with documents, stamps, signatures and dates.”

The report is a further setback for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who stirred a controversy on Monday after he invited Syria’s main ally Iran to participate in the talks.

He later withdrew the last-minute invitation after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the conference if President Assad’s main sponsor took part.

UN referral

President Assad is also unlikely to face any international charges related to the report. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court.

The only way the court could prosecute President Assad would be through a referral from the United Nations Security Council.

However, any referral would almost certainly be vetoed by Russia, which supports the Assad regime.