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Syria Torture Report; On the Ground in Syria; Imagine a World

Aired January 20, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Tonight an exclusive new report alleging systematic torture and killing of prisoners by the Assad regime as peace talks on Syria's civil war hang in the balance.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's surprise invitation to Iran to join the so-called Geneva 2 conference this week threw Syria's opposition and the United States into an uproar.

Now more than 100,000 Syrians have been killed since the war started three years ago and starvation stalks the land, according to the U.N.

As neither regime nor rebels muster sufficient military might for victory, settling into a grinding war of attrition, CNN, along with "The Guardian" newspaper have received exclusive access to a devastating investigation by some of the most respected and experienced international prosecutors.

They say, quote, "There is clear evidence of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government."

They say their source is a defector who had been in the Syrian military police, an insider they've code named "Caesar," who smuggled out tens of thousands of graphic images of corpses, emaciated and severely beaten.

The six-member panel was made up of British and American lawyers, who've been lead prosecutors in U.N. war crimes tribunals, as well as three forensic experts. Tonight, as we break the news of this report, three members of the panel join me to discuss the evidence and its consequences.

Chairman of the legal team, Sir Desmond de Silva, who was former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone; Sir Geoffrey Nice, former lead prosecutor in the trial of ex-President Milosevic of Yugoslavia at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague and Dr. Stuart Hamilton, a U.K. forensic pathologist.

Gentlemen, welcome; thank you very much for joining me.

This is indeed devastating reading and devastating viewing, when we see the pictures.

Let me ask you first, Sir Desmond, as chairman, what was your mandate? What were you asked to do?

SIR DESMOND LORENZ DE SILVA, QC: It was an inquiry in terms of reliability. The London firm of Qatarak (ph) asked me to put a team together for the purpose of investigating the reliability of the defector from Syria, who I understood brought with him -- who had a good comment on some 55,000 images of people who had been tortured and killed.

AMANPOUR: And are you convinced of the reliability of the defector code named "Caesar"?

DE SILVA: Yes, I am. Yes, I am, sufficiently so; I think all of us were in agreement that his account was essentially true; it had the hallmarks of truth and it would stand up in the court.

AMANPOUR: And let me be very clear: who funded this investigation?

DE SILVA: The solicitors who instructed me were funded by the government of Qatar.

AMANPOUR: So the question to you, then, is, given the fact that they are well-known supporters of the opposition, were you or any of your team concerned that there might be a political motive behind their hiring of you, behind this investigation?

DE SILVA: Well, ultimately the validity of our conclusions turn on the integrity of the people involved.

AMANPOUR: All right.

DE SILVA: I'll begin by saying that. We, the team, were very conscious of the fact that our competing interests in the Syrian crisis, both national and international, we're very conscious of that.

I said then -- and I'm sure this goes for all the others -- we approached our task with a certain amount of skepticism bearing that in mind.


DE SILVA: We had no wish to be made -- I certainly had no wish that this inquiry -- was a vehicle for propagating some form -- one particular point of view or another.

AMANPOUR: Then let me go straight to these images and to Stuart Hamilton, who is the scientist who looked at these things.

We've seen these horrendous images, figure number one, according to your report and how you list them, I mean, this is reminiscent of the most horrific state of affairs, crimes that we've seen in history.

Tell me -- tell me what this is.

DR. STUART HAMILTON, U.K. FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: I mean, this is in essence a person who has been starved. They -- you can see quite clearly how prominent the ribs are, the loss of muscle mass. This is not just somebody who's thin or somebody maybe hadn't had enough food because there's a war going on. This is somebody who's been really starved.

AMANPOUR: And would you say starved to death?

HAMILTON: It's quite possible. You -- without having more detail than ours, just like looking at the body, you can't be sure. But starvation is a very reasonable cause of death for a body like that.

AMANPOUR: So let's get now to image number nine, which is what? I mean, obviously, to me, it looks like this man's been beaten terribly.

HAMILTON: And that's exactly what's happened. He has been beaten terribly. You can see the tram line bruises which, to a forensic pathologist, are characteristic of repeated blows with a rod-like object. You can see that they're parallel.

This person has been moving as these strikes land. And they go up and down his torso. In addition, he's very thin and he's got bruises on his neck. He's been savagely beaten.

AMANPOUR: The next set of pictures are what you've listed as image four and image five. This shows what you talk about, strangulation. And if I might just point out, we have in this display here a type of strangulation that comes with marks, with ridges.

And if we move to the next picture, we will see the device, apparently, that caused those images.

Tell me what you thought when you saw this.

HAMILTON: When you see this, it's very characteristic of a strangulation. The --

AMANPOUR: But not hanging?

HAMILTON: Not hanging. The position on the neck is incorrect for hanging; you should have a mark that rises on the neck, the rear of the neck, if somebody has been hanged.

This is a strangulation, and it's got a very clear pattern to it, which anyone looking at that can see, which suggests that a particular implement may have been used.

And then several images later, looking at a different person, we have this image of somebody with this belt of some kind around his neck. You can see the ridges on it.

AMANPOUR: And you can see that is what caused that image on his neck.

HAMILTON: Yes. It doesn't take a forensic pathologist to --


AMANPOUR: To figure it out.

HAMILTON: -- to put those two together.

AMANPOUR: Exactly. Awful, awful, awful.

And the next picture that we're going to show is the final picture for us, is figure eight, where, again, you see beating, but specifically you see several bodies.

So it lends itself to what when you saw that?

HAMILTON: I mean, the -- this is something systematic. There are images that I have seen of bodies lined up in the dozens. And you can see that there's somebody who been beaten and you can see next from somebody who's got injuries on their arms.

This is, you know, a lot of things have happened to a lot of people.

AMANPOUR: Did you -- you obviously only looked at the images.


AMANPOUR: How many of these 55,000 images did you look at?

HAMILTON: We had a short timeframe so I've seen about 5.5 thousand images. It averages about four images per body. So that works out in the order of 1,300 deceased persons.

AMANPOUR: And you saw, again, beatings, starvation and strangulation?

HAMILTON: Beating was relatively common; starvation, disturbingly common; evidence of strangulation was there for all to see.

AMANPOUR: He's the scientist, Geoffrey Nice. He's the expert who looked at it forensically.

What conclusion did you come to? Who did this? Who ordered this?

SIR GEOFFREY NICE, QC: If you have this number of bodies, probably in the order of 11,000-plus, if the 50,000 images are all consistent as we understand them to be, and as our scientists show them to be, if you have 11,000 bodies, dealt with in a systematic way, brought from one place to another, where they were photographed with identifying marks to enable the authorities to know that the people have been killed, to allow the authorities to give spurious explanations for the deaths of the people and to satisfy the authorities that people have been executed, then you can reasonably infer that this is a pattern of behavior which has to have higher authority.

AMANPOUR: So would you say that this is the first direct evidence of various elements of the regime engaged in mass killing?

NICE: I can't say whether it's the first. I can say that, on the basis that we were approaching the evidence, not as judges and final arbiters, but to assess whether the evidence would be capable of proving something, that this is evidence that would be capable of proving responsibility for organized and mass killing by the higher authorities in the regime.

AMANPOUR: And this -- you say that very powerfully; therefore this would stand up in a tribunal of any type?

NICE: In our judgment, there's no reason to doubt, from what we've seen, either the evidence coming from human beings or more, perhaps, particularly the evidence coming from the experts, which is outside our particular field of expertise.

AMANPOUR: Gentlemen, we're going to talk about the defector, Caesar, the code name is Caesar, when we come back after a break.

So you've just heard talk about this evidence; even with evidence, getting justice for victims can be a torturous path all of its own.

In 1992, during the war in Bosnia, Muslim men and boys were rounded up by Bosnian Serb forces and driven into camps, unseen in Europe since the Nazi atrocities of World War II.

Despite media reports of ethnic cleansing and mass graves, it wasn't until 1995 that the U.S.-led NATO intervention finally brought peace after 200,000 Muslim civilians had been systematically murdered.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was later charged with crimes against humanity in connection with that war but he died in his jail cell in 2006 and was never found guilty.

My guest, Sir Geoffrey Nice, was the lead prosecutor in that case. And when we come back, we'll talk about more of the evidence in this Syria investigation and especially about the defector they've codenamed Caesar.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program, detailing exclusive new report alleging systematic torture and killing by the Assad regime. The allegations are extensively documented by a defector, a former member of the Syrian military police, codenamed Caesar.

CNN, along with "The Guardian" newspaper have received exclusive access to this devastating investigation, and we're going to continue this discussion with our distinguished jurists, who are chairman and members of the panel.

Let me ask you first, Sir Desmond, who is Caesar? Who was he?

Why did he do what he did?

DE SILVA: Well, for about 13 years, Caesar was working in the military police in Syria. And his job, for most of that time, was to act at the scenes of crime investigator, taking photographs, the sort of criminal activity that is photographed by members of the police.

However, since the onset of the -- of the --

AMANPOUR: Of the war.

DE SILVA: -- of the war, civil war, he -- his functions changed and that of his unit changed. They changed to taking photographs of bodies that arrived from the detention center, bodies of people --

AMANPOUR: Which we've seen --


DE SILVA: -- killed in detention centers and brought to a hospital, a military hospital -- I can't tell you where it is but I know where it is, but I can't tell you where it is for a number of reasons.

And these bodies were brought there in order that they might be photographed for reasons that I think we may have touched upon simply to show that a record was made at that point to document the killings to enable the government presumably or the people higher up the chain to know that the orders given to kill the people had, in fact, been carried out.

So to avoid any possibility of anyone being let out by reasons of bribery or anything else.

AMANPOUR: All right.

DE SILVA: So that the bodies were there to confirm that the orders to kill had been carried out.

AMANPOUR: Sir Geoffrey, as far as you know, who are these bodies? Who were these people?

Were they prisoners of war? Were they political dissidents? Did Caesar know who they were?

NICE: No, and he's quite clear that he never saw an execution and he never saw an act of torture. There is (INAUDIBLE) --

AMANPOUR: So he was just photographing the results?

NICE: Correct. And (INAUDIBLE) that Dr. Hamilton saw, I -- we're not aware of them bearing any marks of being men in the services. But we probably can't go any further than that, not least, of course, because they are nearly all without any form of clothing of any kind or any other mark that would indicate whether they were soldiers or not.

AMANPOUR: What happens to the bodies as far as Caesar told you?

HAMILTON: Our understanding is they were taken from the place of photographing to mass graves in a rural area close by, where they were buried.

AMANPOUR: So, again, do you see evidence of a cover-up, not just mass killings, as the defector alleges and that you have determined, but of a cover-up by the regime?

Is all of this, these figures, these numbers?

NICE: Well, yes. Taking bodies, if it be the case that you have executed, leaving a misleading trail as to what happened to them -- or allowing for a misleading trail to be left -- burying them in an anonymous grave, if that isn't consistent with a cover-up, I don't know what is.

AMANPOUR: So the families were told that, what, they just died of natural causes?

NICE: Typically.



You have prosecuted major crimes of world leaders at U.N. sanctioned tribunals.

Can you take this evidence to a tribunal?

What are you comfortable that it would prove, crimes against humanity, more serious war crimes?

Tell me what this can do in a court of law.

DE SILVA: Certainly, they're crimes against humanity. This evidence would underpin a charge of crimes against humanity without any shadow of a doubt. Of course, it's not for us to make the decision.

All we can do is evaluate the evidence and say this evidence is capable of being accepted by a tribunal as genuine, because we've come to the conclusion that the defector demonstrated and this evidence is in independent underpinning by scientific evidence.

And therefore, looking at the evidence as it -- as it emerges, we -- I have little doubt -- and I think this goes for my colleagues, too, that this is compelling evidence, compelling evidence.

AMANPOUR: And again, you were the lawyers and the prosecutors. You're the scientist.

What kind of information did you get from them before you looked at the pictures?

Or did you just look at the pictures before knowing much about the rest of them?

HAMILTON: I was aware that Caesar existed. I was aware that he was said to have got many images showing many people out of the -- out of Syria and essentially that was all I knew when I looked at them.

I looked at the images cold, as it were, so that I could form my conclusions scientifically and then those conclusions could be matched to what Caesar was saying. And either clearly one would support the other or it wouldn't.

AMANPOUR: Tell me a little bit more in this regard about Caesar, his motivation.

Was he against the regime? Did he plot to do this?

How did he come to do this? And was he exaggerating? I mean, tell me what made you feel comfortable about him.

NICE: His motivation was that he was distressed by what he saw and wanted to provide the evidence to others. And he took some personal risk to do that, as the report makes clear.

So I think -- so that's his motivation. There's one interesting thing -- one thing about Caesar that we ought to make quite clear: although we've got some 23,000-odd images that we've seen, or rather we've surveyed in general terms, that come from him, and there are other images that come from him, there are other images within the overall 55,000 that come from others.

So there is material still coming out, it may be, or that has come out of a like kind. And that's important bearing -- sorry.

AMANPOUR: Go ahead.

NICE: Bearing in mind that war crimes trials -- and Sir Desmond knows as well as anyone -- starts with a small body of evidence and once that is known about particularly, it gives confidence to others to add to it.

So this evidence wouldn't be the only evidence that one would imagine ever going to a particular war crimes trial. You'd have to have other evidence as well.

AMANPOUR: Let me just finish by asking you, Stuart Hamilton, this is wartime in Syria.

Could these have been war injuries?

And of course everybody is going to want to know, could these pictures have been doctored?

HAMILTON: Certainly. Firstly, there were occasional bodies that showed gunshot wounds but the sort of thing you'd expect to see in an armed conflict is multiple gunshot wounds, blast injuries, explosion injuries, fire injuries, maybe injuries from collapse of buildings, falling from buildings, overrunning by military vehicles, that's the sort of thing you'd expect to see in war casualties in a--

AMANPOUR: But you didn't see that.

HAMILTON: I just didn't see it. I saw a few gunshot wounds which clearly could be a form of execution, could be during an armed conflict. But the vast majority are the sort of things I've seen here.

AMANPOUR: And digitally doctored, these were digital images you looked at?

HAMILTON: Yes. We sent them to Mr. Cole (ph), the digital forensic expert, who confirmed that these had not been doctored after they had been produced and as far as I'm concerned, the injuries that can we see are so compelling in so many people that to use makeup or special effects or something like that prior to the image being taken is just, frankly, unrealistic.

AMANPOUR: It's a devastating report, which obviously will have profound ramifications.

Stuart Hamilton, Sir Geoffrey Nice, Sir Desmond de Silva, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

NICE: Thank you.

DE SILVA: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: As we said, a devastating indictment of the Syrian regime.

And after a break, we'll go to Damascus where President Bashar al- Assad today portrayed himself as a man of the people whose future is bound by public opinion. Just listen.


BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA (through translator): I see no reason why I shouldn't stand. If there is public desire and a public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election.


AMANPOUR: Of course, with over 100,000 killed and over 5 million Syrians forced from their homes, the sample of public opinion is getting harder to come by.

What about this grave report that we've just been talking about? The view from Damascus with CNN's Fred Pleitgen when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program, where we've just been reporting about chilling new allegations of killing and systematic torture at the hands of the Syrian government.

Fred Pleitgen is in Damascus right now and joins me from there.

Fred, this report is obviously going to come like a body blow to the Syrian government.

How do you expect the reaction to be and particularly with the detailed nature of what we've just heard over the last half hour?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's difficult to see how the reaction is going to be (INAUDIBLE). It's going to be a very strong reaction because this report really goes back to one of the reasons why the uprising against the regime started in the first place.

It is the fact that people here can be arrested without any sort of warning or people are arrested without any sort of reason, really, and the fact also that the defense detention facilities here in this country seem to be absolutely appalling.

And it's not only the fact that opposition members are being detained. It's also the fact that members of the opposition that have tolerated by Bashar al-Assad are being arrested as well, held for a very long time and they all come out looking a lot worse than they did when they came in.

Also supporters of the government get arrested as well. I've known at least one person that has actually worked for the government who also (INAUDIBLE) somewhere and was then taken into custody for several weeks. So it's something that's a big issue here in this country.

Go back to 2011, when a lot of the uprising here in this country started, a lot of that happened because many people were being arrested at these demonstrations and no one ever knew where they went. And a lot of them then later get released. They don't know if they've been charged with anything or why they've been arrested.

But certainly this is a very, very big issue, not just among opposition members but even among supporters of Bashar al-Assad, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Well, Fred, thank you for joining me from Damascus and you're going to have a lot of follow-up to do, no doubt, on this story. Appreciate you being with us today.

And remember, we've just reported serious new allegations and evidence from a defector in Syria that perhaps 11,000 prisoners in Syria were systematically tortured and killed since 2011 when that revolution started in Syria.

And that is it for our program tonight. You can see the full report on and across all CNN platforms and of course follow me and this story on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for watching. And goodbye from London.