Editor’s note: This film is no longer available to view online.
For the past five years, ordinary Syrians have been collecting evidence of war crimes committed against civilians during the country’s ongoing civil war.
We will punish these criminals. We believe that the victims have the right to see their torturers judged.
They film, take photographs and collect physical evidence in the hope that one day the perpetrators will be punished.
They have recovered military orders, collected bomb fragments, taken toxic samples, filmed mutilated bodies and archived thousands of testimonies to make sure the trace of evidence does not disappear.
The story of these evidence-hunters is one of a Syria never told: a story of men who choose as their weapons of war their mobile phones, their pens and the penal code, to become witnesses for the prosecution against all abuses committed in Syria.
In Syria: Witnesses for the Prosecution, we follow some of these unknown heroes who risk everything to ensure that one day justice will be served.
“We will punish these criminals. We believe that the victims have the right to see their torturers judged,” says Abdelkader Mandou, the director of the Syrian Institute for Justice.
Manipulation and irreproachable traceability
From Gaziantep, Turkey, Abdelkader leads a team of Syrians who collect videos and physical evidence of attacks and human rights violations committed against civilians, no matter who is responsible.
“At the moment, our work is not stopping the destruction nor the attacks, but the day will come when they can. On that day, we will prove the crimes of the torturers and they won’t escape judgment,” he says.
Ibrahim is a Syrian who conducted an investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Saraqeb, Syria, in 2013. He found proof of use of sarin gas by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and was convinced that he had a strong enough case to bring about a US intervention to end the war.
His material was handed over to the United Nations and the use of chemical weapons was confirmed. However, the traceability of his collected evidence was in question and nothing proved that the regime was responsible for the poisoning. Both the army and the opposition rejected responsibility.
“It was not a full chain of responsibility, and that means that the event that was followed could not be guaranteed that all steps were covered from the start until it reached us at our table. It was not like the movie film where every square is in that movie film. There were cuts and that is not acceptable in a forensic investigation,” says Ake Sellstrom, the head of the UN inspectors investigating possible chemical weapons use in Syria.
To avoid any suspicion of manipulation, Abdelkader trains his team how to film videos as if they had to describe a crime scene.
“There are lots of rumours and pieces of false information….These manipulations showed us how important it is to ensure the authenticity of our videos. We have also understood the importance of filming, archiving and saving our proof in a professional manner, so that there is no suspicion when it comes to our work,” he says.
Cesar and the victims of torture
In August 2013, a Syrian military forensic photographer, known as “Cesar”, defected from the regime. He smuggled 55,000 photos out of Syria, many of which appeared to be of prisoners tortured to death by the Syrian regime.
We thought that we had conducted a serious and credible investigation into the crimes being committed at this very moment in Syria. We were shocked that a country from the Security Council could use their veto.
He says that until 2011, he was tasked to photograph accident scenes and crimes involving the military. But when the revolution started, the bodies photographed by Cesar didn’t look like accident victims any more. He alerted Sami, an activist friend who had been documenting atrocities since the beginning of the revolution.
For two years, Cesar regularly uploaded thousands of photos on to USB sticks that he passed on to Sami. The pictures show men starved and tortured to death. They appeared to be prisoners held in detention centres in Damascus.
In 2013, Cesar felt he was under threat and left the country. In early 2014, the images were released to the media and seen around the world. A team of prosecutors studied the images and interviewed Cesar to establish authenticity. Despite the links between Cesar and Sami with the Syrian opposition, the evidence was judged as admissible.
But, in order to be referred to the International Criminal Court, the case required the unanimous vote of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. And Russia used its veto.
“We thought that we had conducted a serious and credible investigation into the crimes being committed at this very moment in Syria. We were shocked that a country from the Security Council could use their veto. That short word means that the blood of innocent Syrians who have died was spilled in vain. And they tell us that this decision from the Security Council is political. At that moment, we lost all hope in the international community,” says activist Sami.
Documenting the reality of those living under ISIL
Mohammed, from the city of Deir Az Zor, is one of the founders of the organisation Sound and Image, which collects evidence of human rights violations committed in five regions in Syria.
Deir Az Zor in eastern Syria is one of the regions that were taken by ISIL.
“People think that Daesh is publicising all its crimes, but what we see is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a small part of what is actually happening. There are terrifying crimes happening in their detention centres and prisons. Collecting evidence is very difficult, because Daesh has restricted the internet and communication”, says Mohammed.
From Turkey, Mohammed collects information; he collects the reality of those living under ISIL. The documents that he found show that men were banned from shaving their beards and all internet users had to register.
Sound and Pictures also records witness statements from prisoners held by ISIL, medical reports and court decisions. The members of the organisation have been targeted by ISIL.
“We receive lots of threats. They come through as posts on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. They’re not anonymous. I’ve received some by email. They say, ‘We know who you are. We can find you, we know where you live’. In one of these emails, they attached a picture of my house,” says Mohammed.
Inside Syria, with so many armed groups in the conflict, any organisation can be infiltrated, so every conversation is protected by a code. Despite all precautions, four activists were killed at the end of June 2015 – one in Syria, and three in Turkey. With his life under threat, Mohammed eventually left for Europe.
“We need to preserve this information. It shows the reality of the events that took place. This is for future generations. They will be used by all who will want to know what really happened in Syria. They say ‘history is written by the victors’. We are against this,” he says.
In 2014, ISIL quickly expanded and gained territory. The group became the focus of the international media – to the point where crimes committed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime were pushed into the background – although thousands of civilians were killed by his forces.
‘Documents don’t lie’
Adel al-Hariri is a war crimes investigator in Syria. During one of his missions he got his hands on documents abandoned by the Syrian Army. In the midst of war, his priority is to secure evidence.
But in a war zone, where death and destruction are rampant and food and medical care are scarce, risking your life for a few pieces of paper seems trivial.
We've moved now out of Syria about 600,000 pages of material... This is far and away the best form of evidence. Documents essentially don't lie.
“One day, I left some documents with a woman who was a shepherd. I left for a few months and then I returned. When I came to move the documents, I asked the woman to give me the papers that I had left with her. She hesitated and then replied, ‘I had to use them to make a fire to feed my children.’ So imagine, you exhaust yourself, bleed yourself dry to find evidence that could be used in a tribunal and a peasant woman with no money puts your evidence on the fire, saying that she needed to feed her children,” al-Hariri says.
William Wiley, a Canadian lawyer and war crimes investigator, is convinced that this evidence will one day be presented in front of a tribunal. He, and a team of lawyers, have sorted, translated and analysed thousands of documents by the Syrian administration.
“We’ve moved now, out of Syria, about 600,000 pages of material. When you have such a mass of documentation, as we do, essentially you get to the truth of how the regime structures functions, how they think collectively, these structures. This is far and away the best form of evidence. Documents essentially don’t lie,” Wiley says.
The lawyer aims to identify those responsible at the top, before looking for the victims. His organisation is reconstructing the chain of command of the regime. Who gives the orders? How are they transmitted? How do the regime’s security forces operate? Is Bashar al-Assad directly implicated?
Wiley has made his investigations available to a prosecutor. But, who could take the case on? The International Criminal Court hits a wall when it comes to the Russian veto and the powerlessness of the UN to confront one of its own members. Syria is a sovereign state and Bashar al-Assad is the sitting president. In the short term, there will not be an international court case.
The ongoing conflict has spilled over the borders of Syria and threatens the whole region, but Syrians continue to collect evidence.
Bassam al-Ahmad, who works for the Violations Documentation Centre, believes that “this memorial work is very important for the future. One day we’ll change the names of streets, gardens, schools. We will give them the names of the children who have been killed during this war, and the names of the activists too. It will be a totally different Syria, a new Syria for the Syrians. A country with no ethnic conflicts, without religious oppositions.”