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11 have died on World's Highest Peak this Season; Israel May Hold A General Election for the Second Time This Year; Inside the Clandestine Mission to Collect Evidence of Alleged Syrian War Crimes; 26 Horses Have Died At Santa Anita Park Since December; President Trump Addresses U.S. Troops Aboard Navy Ship In Japan; Trump Says North Korea's Missile Tests Don't Bother Him; Elections in E.U. Tilt Toward Populism; Tornadoes Rip Through Midwestern U.S.; Overcrowding on Everest Likely Caused Deaths. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired May 28, 2019 - 02:00   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The U.S. president leaves Japan after a four-day trip. Mr. Trump thanks U.S. troops stationed there and hails the strong ties Washington has with Japan.

Plus, deadly tornadoes rip through the U.S. Midwest as emergency teams try to assess the damage in the hardhit areas. More severe weather may be on the way.

And another climber dies on Mt. Everest as experts warn that overcrowding on the summit in making the climb more dangerous.

Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us from around the world and all around the world, I'm Rosemary Church this is CNN NEWSROOM.


CHURCH: U.S. president Donald Trump has wrapped up his four-day state visit to Japan, where he and prime minister Shinzo Abe (sic) reaffirm the close alliance between their two countries.

Before leaving Japan just a short time ago, Mr. Trump toured the Japanese destroyer making history as the first U.S. president to set foot on a Japanese warship. He also visited U.S. service members on the U.S.S. Wasp, docked near Tokyo and thanked them for their service and marked the U.S. holiday Memorial Day which honors fallen troops.


TRUMP: On this Memorial Day evening in the United States, Americans are concluding a sacred day of remembrance, reflection and prayer. Citizens all across the country came together to decorate the graves of our fallen heroes and to honor their selfless acts of courage. The citizens of our country are incredible, they love our country and they love you. They love you. You have no idea how much they love you. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CHURCH: Senior international correspondent Ivan Watson joins us now from Tokyo with more on all of this.

Good to see you.

What has been the overall assessment of how President Trump's four day state visit to Japan went?

And how problematic could the North Korea issue be with the president saying he has no issue with North Korea's short range missile tests, a view not shared by the Japanese prime minister?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This was, as the Japanese prime minister put it, a demonstration to people at home and abroad of the strength of the U.S.-Japanese alliance and it was very high on symbolism and ceremony but somewhat short on real substance. There was not a trade deal announced, which the White House had wanted in the months running up to this trip. That can has been kicked down the road until August, at least after Japan holds upper house elections in July.

There were discussions about some of the shared security threats; North Korea came up and you had this peculiar situation, where in one of the restricted bilateral meetings, that President Trump conducted, of the four officials in the room and that was President Trump, his national security adviser, the Japanese prime minister and the Japanese security minister, of those four officials, President Trump was the only one who did not believe that United Nations Security Council resolutions had been violated by North Korea's May 9th firing of two short range ballistic missiles.

President Trump demonstrating in a joint press conference that he is doubling down on his one on one diplomacy with the North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-un, and willing to overlook things like a ballistic missile launch, which the Japanese and the White House national security adviser say was a violation.

So what that then brought to was putting the Japanese prime minister in a position, where, on the one hand, he proved he was his own man, he called this a violation. But, in the same breath applauded President Trump for taking a new approach to North Korea's threat, for cracking the shell of distrust, as he put it, and embarking on a diplomatic approach, one that the Japanese prime minister would like to pursue as well.

He says that he would also like to conduct, if possible, a face-to- face meeting with the North Korean leader, with no preconditions.


WATSON: So very interesting to see how the Japanese prime minister handled this and also how President Trump basked in all the pomp and circumstance and the honor of being the first foreign leader to meet the newly enthroned Japanese emperor -- Rosemary. CHURCH: He was made the center of attention.

What did Japan get out of all this, though?

WATSON: Japan needs the U.S. The U.S. is its closest and most important ally. It still has a pacifist constitution and relies on the U.S. as a pillar of its own national defense policy.

The Japanese prime minister has proven that, while Trump may have been pursuing some shorter term goals over the last two years with one on one diplomacy with the North Korean leader, those diplomatic initiatives have hit the rocks with the trade war with China, without a deal with North Korea.

Meanwhile, the U.S.' closest ally in Asia has proven steadfast, so Shinzo Abe (sic) has proved that. When it comes to the trade disputes that the U.S. has with Japan, real criticism that President Trump has been voicing ever since he was a private citizen and businessman and tabloid star in the 1980s.

Shinzo Abe has perhaps dulled some of that criticism, managed to avoid a new round of threatened automobile tariffs slapped against Japan and managed to, perhaps, postpone trade negotiations that could force some concessions on the Japanese economy, at least for a few months, at a time in the Japanese government is warning that its own economic growth is worsening.

CHURCH: Many thanks to Ivan Watson, bringing us that live report from Tokyo, where it's just after 3:00 in the afternoon.

All right let's bring in Scott Lucas via Skype, he is a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham.

Good to have you with us.


President Trump is heading home after his four-day state visit to Japan, one that showcased a very strong relationship with Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe (sic).

But they are not on the same page when it comes to North Korea's short range missile tests. Mr. Trump made it not clear he is not concerned about these tests and doesn't think it violated U.N. resolutions, that view is not shared by Mr. Abe, who -- or by the president's national security adviser, John Bolton.

So how problematic is this potentially and why do you think he is playing down Kim Jong-un's missile tests?

LUCAS: I don't think it's problematic in terms of -- for Donald Trump in terms of what happens with Japan, because he doesn't really care about the Japanese on this issue. There are two priorities for Trump. The first is he loves a photo opportunity and he loves to play the idea that he is the dealmaker. So there's a lot of ego here. The second is for the 2020 reelection campaign. He wants to prevent

this image to Americans that he can get tough with some folks -- say, China -- but on the other hand that get-tough approach brings results, say as with North Korea.

But here's the problem. For him to get the deal with North Korea, he has to get tough in a way that also says Kim Jong-un is my friend, to the point where he said this past weekend not only is Kim Jong-un my friend, these were just small missile tests, he actually said, and you know what, Kim told me that sleepy Joe Biden has a low IQ.

Now when you get to that point of linking a serious national security issue with your 2020 campaign by trying to trash a Democrat who might be running, that's a high-risk gamble and that's one that Trump is willing to take against his own agents.

CHURCH: Let's look closer at that because Trump did veer into domestic politics, agreeing with Kim that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was of low intellect.

Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger replied to the president with this tweet, "It's Memorial Day weekend and you're taking a shot at Biden while praising a dictator. This is just plain wrong."

So what are the optics of a U.S. president aligning himself with a dictator and attacking a political rival back home, with a lone Republican saying this is wrong?

LUCAS: Well, if it's a couple of Republicans in the House -- and we see that on other issues, such as Justin Amash --


LUCAS: -- calling for impeachment -- that doesn't bother the man in the White House as long as he has got protection from the big guys, like the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the Republicans in the upper chamber.

Donald Trump has been someone who has defied Congress to embrace Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia despite serious issues over that country's approach, including the assassination of a journalist.

He's been willing to embrace Vladimir Putin of Russia, despite the doubts that it raises both over 2016 and our policy today. The Trump approach here is not concerned with Adam Kinzinger. He thinks the American people will back him with it.

And to be honest with you, if he is still in office at this time next year, that's the real test because I don't think the Republicans in the Senate will defy him.

CHURCH: Going back to this trip to Japan, we saw all of the pomp and pageantry of the past four days, Shinzo Abe (sic) showering President Trump with attention, giving him everything that he wanted on that trip, as you mentioned. But what did Prime Minister Abe get out of this what Japan get out of

this, just standing by the United States president's side, is that going to be enough?

LUCAS: No, the Japanese, like other countries know that you play to Trump not by challenging him but you play to his ego and you make him feel like the biggest guy in the room. And there's a couple of issues here.

One is the Japanese don't really trust Trump on North Korea. But they're willing for him to fire off his tweets as long as they can talk to American officials behind him and say, look, keep him in check.

And the more immediate issue, especially since Abe is facing an election campaign is, the Japanese really want to make sure that the U.S., specifically Donald Trump, starts to reduce tariffs upon them, even as he is jacking up tariffs on the Chinese.

So there's that economic motive in which the Japanese may give a little bit to let more U.S. products in. They really want tariffs to decrease on their own products. So to do that, you flatter Trump rather than criticize him.

CHURCH: While he was away, he was able to hit the pause button with all the drama between himself and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Presumably when he gets back he will pick back up on all of that and on we will go to that next issue.

LUCAS: The wider context is simply that the White House and Donald Trump are trying to block any substantive move in terms of hearings on a follow-up regarding the Trump-Russia links and on hearings regarding Trump's business and tax affairs.

These are hearings in Congress but there are also hearings in the courts. And that all-out attempt to stalemate and block these means they're willing to put government business to the side.

For instance, Trump walking away from the infrastructure plan last week and it does mean he will make Nancy Pelosi his personal target because his gamble is, if you keep talking about Pelosi, you won't talk about the wider issue, his taxes or finances and what exactly happened in 2016.

CHURCH: There are a whole lot of issues to discuss. Scott Lucas, thank you so much. So good to get your perspective on all these matters of politics. Appreciate it.

LUCAS: Thank you, Rosemary.

CHURCH: A 12 year old school girl and a 39 year old man have been killed in a knife attack in Japan; 17 others were wounded when the attacker assaulted a crowd near a park in the city of Kawasaki, south of Tokyo; 16 were elementary schoolchildren.

Police say the attacker died from self inflicted injuries as he was being detained. We do not know, at this point, what the motive may have been.


CHURCH: The results in the European Parliamentary election suggest voters in 28 countries are ready for change but they're not ready to abandon the European Union altogether.

Populist and nationalist parties gained ground but not as much as had been predicted and most of the voters still backed pro-E.U. parties, like the Green Party. Erin McLaughlin looks at what's ahead for a fragmented Parliament.


ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Will the E.U. heed the winds of change or stick to the status quo?

That is the outstanding question out of Sundays night's European Parliamentary election, which saw the erosion of the so-called grand coalition, the lines of the center right and center left parties, responsible for making most of the decisions for Parliament for decades now.

They're in majority no more, ceding grounds to parties such as the ALDE grouping and the greens grouping, groupings that want to see more E.U., also ceding ground though to the Eurosceptic groupings, although Parliament overall --


MCLAUGHLIN: -- remains largely pro-E.U.

The question going forward is how will decisions be made and a key test for that, picking the top job for the E.U., who will succeed Jean-Claude Juncker?

Whoever succeeds him as will require a majority approval of half of Parliament. So the coalition building as they go on, as we speak, will they go for something new or stick to the establishment? -- Erin McLaughlin, CNN, Brussels.


CHURCH: Austria's president will dismiss the government in the coming hours as a result of an undercover video scandal. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his Austrian People's Party government lost a no confidence vote Monday.

The secretly recorded video appeared to show the leader of the far right Freedom Party offering state contracts to a woman who falsely claimed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Kurz called off his party's alliance with the Freedom Party but the center left opposition said Kurz shared the blame for the scandal.

Still to come on CNN NEWSROOM, there is no letup inside of America's Midwest, where dangerous weather and severe flooding remain a threat.

Plus, at least 11 people have died this season trying to climb Mt. Everest, raising concerns that too many climbers with too little experience are putting others in danger on the world's highest peak. We are back in a moment.





CHURCH: Millions of people across the Midwestern U.S. are wondering when the severe weather will finally end. Those in Oklahoma have endured weeks of storms, tornadoes and flooding. Every county in the state remains under a state of emergency. The floodwaters are still rising and more rain is on the way.

CNN's Omar Jimenez has the latest.


OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tornadoes, flash flooding and water rescues. Spring storms devastating towns across the central United States and today --


JIMENEZ (voice-over): -- another huge twister touching down near Charles City, Iowa. Now, millions in the region are left grappling with the potential for more.

GOV. KEVIN STITT (R), OKLAHOMA: We've got water still rising in the east, so we're not out of the woods, yet.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): All 77 counties in Oklahoma now under a state of emergency. Along the Arkansas River, the Army Corps of Engineers forced to allow more water through the Tulsa area Keystone Dam just to keep up with the high levels.

LT. COL. ADAM WEECE, MILITARY CHIEF OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS: That equates to approximately a thousand school buses per second going through the dam.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): Over a thousand people in the flood zone around Tulsa have been evacuated as the waters continue to rise.

STITT: We're still monitoring the inflows coming into the watershed, into the Keystone reservoir, so it still could get worse. We don't know exactly where the waters are going to peak.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): The Tulsa County Sheriff's Department has been patrolling the area. Some homes nearly swallowed by the river. The flooding comes as a powerful EF3 tornado cut a path over two miles long in the small town of El Reno, Oklahoma.

MAYOR MIKE WHITE, EL RENO, OKLAHOMA: It's basically touched down right here and hit these 15, 16 spots here at the mobile home park.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): This mobile home park and nearby motel took a direct hit. STITT: You can see that devastation in person. It's just

unbelievable how violent and you just can't imagine anybody being able to survive.

People that are on the top floor of that hotel, it was just kind of wiped out. Then when we saw the trailers, they're just completely demolished. One had the floor there, but a lot of them just kind of were -- just kind of -- it looked like they were blown up.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): The Governor touring the damage there today, taking a phone call from the President who's overseas in Japan.

STITT: I'm out here actually touring the tornado damage right now. And pretty devastating. We've got two fatalities.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): At least 12 have died from the severe weather in the Midwest over the past month. And this El Reno tornado came on the heels of another major storm system. That one centered on Missouri, spawning more than 170 reported tornadoes just last week alone.

CHELSIE MAYO, EL RENO, OKLAHOMA RESIDENT: There's no proper reaction to this and you feel everything. You feel sad. You feel angry.

I mean, there's no -- there's no description of -- you know, I've never been through this. We all hear the horror stories of the past and it's horrible to live through it.

JIMENEZ (voice-over): Omar Jimenez, CNN, El Reno, Oklahoma.




CHURCH: This year's climbing season on Mt. Everest has been especially tragic. At least 11 people have died, the latest being an American attorney who was an experienced climber. There is now concern that the world's highest peak is overcrowded with too many adventurers ill prepared for the rigors of reaching the summit. CNN's Arwa Damon takes us to the beginning of the line.


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are here in Lukla, this is something of the gateway for everyone who is trying to get to Everest. Most people will start their track from here and then in 10-14 days, reach base camp. This group of climbers, they just came down from the summit. They are

among the last group to go up there and they are describing how difficult the conditions were, the temperatures, the winds. They had all heard about this backlog that was happening during the crush to try to get to the summit.

So they decided to wait until the very end, the very last possible window to be able to avoid those crowds, because the vast majority of the deaths that occurred this year happened to people as they were descending from the summit.

They had actually made it all the way to the top but then on their way down, most of them succumbing to altitude sickness.

What happens when you are at that altitude in what is known as the death zone where we've see those photographs of that long enormous trail of people, is that you don't have enough accident for your body to function. Every breath that you take only gives you a third of the level of oxygen that you would be getting at sea level.

That is one of the biggest challenges when trying to summit Everest, not just being physically and mentally prepared but also knowing what your body's limits are. There is a lot of debate right now as to what needs to be done to prevent these levels of deaths from happening once again.

There are people that are saying that the Nepalese government needs to do more, others that say that the tour companies need to do more, that inexperienced climbers should not be allowed to go up and take on this great of a challenge.

But Everest, for those who are as passionate as the climbers we spoke to, remains such a goal that, for most, nothing will deter them -- Arwa Damon, CNN, Lukla, Nepal.


CHURCH: Investigators say they have evidence of possible war crimes by Syria's government. Just ahead, CNN gets rare government to the group that is risking their life to get justice.

Plus, Israel just had an election. But it may be gearing up for another one. The political standoff pitting the prime minister against an old ally. That is coming up in a moment. Stay with us.


ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Welcome back everyone. This is CNN Newsroom. I'm Rosemary Church, want to bring you the very latest on the stories we've been following this hour. U.S. President Donald Trump is on his way home from Japan after wrapping up his four- day state visit to Japan. He's final stop was aboard the USS Wasp, docked near Tokyo to address American sailors and Marines. He thanked them for their service and marked the U.S. Holiday Memorial Day, which honors fallen troops. A 12 year old girl and a 39-year-old man are dead after a mass

stabbing attack in Japan. Officials say 17 others including 15 children were wounded. The assault happened near a park in Kawasaki south of Tokyo. The suspected attacker also died from a self- inflicted wound.

And a severe weather threat is not over yet for millions in the U.S. Midwest. Flood waters in Oklahoma continue to rise and more rain is on the way. Sixth deaths have been reported there and more than a hundred people injured.

Now earlier, we brought you the story on the tragic climbing season on Mount Everest, where 11 people have died in recent weeks. We now have our Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon joining us live from the Everest based camp with more on this story.

So, Arwa explain to us. I mean, we know that people do of course die on Mount Everest in their attempt to reach the summit, but talk to us about why we're seeing so many more die and why there are so many people attempting this? I mean, these incredible shots were seeing that people lined up to get to the top.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Rosemary, we just took a helicopter to Everest base camp on the Nepali side. And just being at this altitude, not having acclimatized, you really feel the impact of that lower level of oxygen. You feel it in every breath that you take. Every single movement that little bit of exertion really does take a toll on your body. And you feel it in your fingertips, the reason why I'm talking about this, it's because oxygen is so critical.

The vast majority of the casualties that we saw this climbing season took place as people were descending. After going up through what's known as the death zone, where there, every breath you take only gives you a third of the level of oxygen that you would have at sea level. Your body being deprived of oxygen like that creates what's called altitude sickness and your organs are literally dying if you're not getting enough oxygen.

That's one of the main reasons why so many people end up dying while they're attempting to summit Everest. To give you an idea of what base camp, it felt looks like. Normally and right now the season is closing, so normally this entire area here is just covered with tents. What we have now, is a handful of climbers, who have just come down off the mountain and you have the cleanup crew, the scenery here is absolutely spectacular. And you do begin to understand what motivates people to want to do this, Rosemary. Because all the climbers that we talked too. Say that the main draw is really the challenge of trying to see if you can physically and mentally handle something like trying to summit Mount Everest.

[02:35:32] If you look over in this direction, you get an idea of just the spectacular mountains scape. Over there you have the ice fall, the infamous Everest ice fall, which climbers will go through to get to camp one and then, the other camps as they begin their expeditions towards the summit of Everest itself. But it's not just the altitude sickness that ends up killing people. You of course have people who fall down. You have various other illnesses and things that can happen as well.

But, another of the main challenges has been what people are calling this overcrowding phenomenon that really some expert climbers will tell you, prove to be very lethal this climbing season. Because as we saw and those now, iconic photographs that came out on social media, you had that backlog inside that death zone where the level of oxygen are so low and climbers would make it to the top, they've make it to the summit, they come back down and some cases go to sleep and not wake up, because of the effects of not having enough oxygen. The effect of that has taken on their bodies.

The other challenge also is that there are a growing number of inexperience climbers. People who can't necessarily figure out what their own limits are, how to read, how their body is reacting to the situation. They just want to push through and make it to that ultimate goal.

So there's a big conversation happening right now about what the burden of responsibility is on the Nepalese government, what Nepalese authority should be doing to try and put in more regulations, what burden of responsibility there is on all of this, climbing companies, but that also of course, Rosemary, there's a burden of responsibility on the individual. You have to be able to read and know what your own body is telling you.

CHURCH: Yes, and that is the big problem, isn't it? There don't seem to be any regulations in place to ensure that those who get permits to climb are actually competent climbers. So, that is something perhaps they need to address. Arwa Damon chatting to us there from base camp at Mount Everest. Thank you so very much for that.

Well, Israel could be headed to a new general election. Parliament passed a preliminary motion, Monday to dissolve itself with coalition talks deadlocked. CNN'S Oren Liebermann has more on the standoff from Jerusalem.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN JERUSALEM CORRESPONDENT: In Israel, coalition negotiations to form a new government often go down to the wire. Each party plays the game of brinkmanship as it tries to extract as much as possible from the negotiations process. But what's happening now is unprecedented. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who appeared to have a clear path to a right wing coalition that was almost identical to his last government has threatened new elections as the negotiations are stuck.

Never before has Israel gone to an election so soon, country also never gone in to elections without the formation of a government. Already there are proposed dates for an election, in late August or early September here. The deadlock is over what's known as the draft law, which aims to draft more ultra-orthodox Jews in the Israel's military. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants the law passed exactly

as it is, with no changes. But the ultra-orthodox parties demand that it be changed. Political analysts have spoken with still say fresh elections are unlikely, even at this stage. Netanyahu is likely to work out some sort of compromise to form a new government. As one analyst said, as the deadline for forming a government draws closer, the number of creative solutions to the impasse grows exponentially.


CHURCH: Our Oren Liebermann reporting there. Well, the bill to dissolve parliament passed after what it's called the first reading. But there are two more readings to go before new elections can be called.

Well, amid that political standoff, Israel says it struck a Syrian anti-aircraft system on Monday. The Israeli military says that system fired at an Israeli jet. Syria says one of its soldiers was killed in the retaliatory attack and another injured.

Prime Minister Netanyahu who said later in a video, his country will respond with strength and firmness against any aggression. And we'll be right back after the short break, stay with us.


[02:43:09] CHURCH: A recent escalation in violence in Syria's last rebel held province has killed hundreds of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. The airstrikes have destroyed schools, hospitals, and most recently, and open air market that left dozens wounded. International organizations believe some of these airstrikes may have been aimed intentionally at civilian targets, which could amount to war crimes just some of the many committed by all sides of the Syrian conflict over the past eight years.

Well, CNN's Jomana Karadsheh and her team were granted rare access to a clandestine operation by a group of investigators risking their lives to collect evidence of alleged war crimes committed by the Assad government. And we must warn you that some of the images in this report are disturbing.


JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: In a nondescript building in Europe is a room called the vault. Nearly 800,000 documents smuggled out of Syria are here, locked and translated, stored and preserved.

Chris Engles heads the regime crimes unit at the Commission for International Justice and Accountability known as CIJA in a profit organization, funded by western governments. In these boxes is potential evidence of alleged war crimes that could one day be used against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

CHRIS ENGLES, DIRECTOR FOR INVESTIGATIONS AND OPERATIONS, COMMISSION FOR INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY: The documents cover a wide range of information and levels of command. So, they start from the highest levels of command that include information on the president and the policy makers at the national level. Who are able to get quite a lot of clarity on how orders went up and down the chain of command. How responsibility at the highest level for policy is then implemented in a way that we can see criminality actually take place on the ground.

[02:45:13] KARADSHEH: There is no one document here that's a smoking gun, but in international criminal justice, it's about linking the crimes to those responsible.

Documents like this, 2011 order authorizing pay raises for military personnel signed by President Assad, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces may seem innocuous, but Engels says, even this is crucial evidence.

ENGELS: We have several documents that are similar to this, with naming Assad and others who demonstrate that they are in control. They have the power to direct the army and security services. And it is a fact that the army and their security services are continuing to commit crimes. And these individuals aren't doing anything to stop it.

KARADSHEH: CIJA has built dozens of cases against the regime, most relating to the early days of the revolution, the violent repression of protests and the alleged torture and killing of thousands of demonstrators detained across the country.

Since 2012, in the shadows of a war that's unleashed some of the worst atrocities of our time, a network of more than 100 Syrians were recruited, vetted, and trained by CIJA. We get a rare opportunity to meet one of those document hunters.

Adel, as he wants to be called, was a lawyer. Now, he heads this team that has risked everything to save the evidence.

ADEL, INVESTIGATOR, COMMISSION FOR INTERNATIONAL JUSTICE AND ACCOUNTABILITY: All members of our team men and women have been subjected to arrests or beatings or humiliation or danger. We are operating in a war zone. In most cases, we would enter areas as airstrikes would be ongoing. But we have to go in to collect the evidence before it's damaged.

KARADSHEH: For Adel and his fellow evidence hunters, a treasure trove of documents has been left behind by the regime's infamous bureaucracy.

ADEL: After the Free Syrian Army captured locations from the government like military or intelligence sites, our teams would be ready and they would enter these sites. Their primary tasks to preserve these documents or what is left of them. Because in many cases, these documents would be destroyed.

KARADSHEH: CIJA has not only relied on evidence collected by its own network of investigators. In a number of cases, they've combined that with some of the most damning visual evidence of this conflict. 28,000 horrific photographs of dead detainees smuggled out in 2013 by a military defector, codenamed, Caesar. CIJA has been able to cross- reference the identifying numbers seen in these pictures with ones in the smuggled documents. Allowing them to identify some of the prisoners and linked them to specific facilities, and the security apparatus who were holding them.

One of those photos of those numbers was 30-year-old, Mohammad Al- Kholani. A newlywed law student detained in April of 2012. His sister, Amina, survivor of government jails now a refugee in the U.K. is a living testimony to the Syrian regime's brutality.

AMINA AL-KHOLANI, SYRIAN ACTIVIST (through translator): When the Caesar files came out, Mohammad's photo was the first one. We went to issue a paper from the Civil Registry to confirm his status. They told us he died as a result of a heart attacks. Our 34-year-old boy died of a heart attack.

KARADSHEH: Documents issued by the regime claimed thousands held in its facilities all died of natural causes. Three other brothers from the Al-Kholani family were also detained. Only one of them, Bilal, emerged alive. His gaunt face testament to the horrors inside government jails.

According to CIJA's investigations, it's a story replicated thousands of times over in Syria where torture is rampant and systematic and forced confessions are the norm. Syrian government officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But the regime has repeatedly dismissed the evidence as fake and insisted it was fighting terrorist, not peaceful protesters.

Amina Kholani still desperately calls for justice for her brothers, but like so many other Syrians, she fears she may never live to see the regime held accountable for its crimes as Bashar al-Assad seems to have defied the odds, for now, surviving a revolution and is on the verge of winning the war.

ENGELS: The tides changed, and what we're making sure of is that when the ship does come, when the discussion about justice does appear, in five or 10 or 20 years, that there will be evidence there.

KARADSHEH: Evidence collected by CIJA has already been used in individual trials in the United States and Europe, it has also led to the arrest in Germany or at least, one mid-level regime member accused of torture. For Adel, this is just the start.

ADEL: I said goodbye to my wife and children. And told them I am no longer yours. I am now owned by Syria and justice.

[02:50:07] KARADSHEH: Justice he says, is a duty from which there is no turning back. Jomana Karadsheh, CNN.


CHURCH: We're back in just a moment.


CHURCH: In California, a racehorse named Kochees was put down Sunday after being injured at Santa Anita Park. Now, that is sad and shocking, of course, but not really surprising. 26 horses have died at the famed racetrack since December. And as CNN's Nick Watt reports, animal rights activists are demanding changes.


[02:54:31] NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: 26 sources dead since Christmas, it is a shocking statistic, and it has forced officials here to take action. They closed this track down for nearly a month in March and trying to figure out why these horses are dying. And they implemented some new rules. And they say that anybody who breaks those rules is not welcome here.

The welfare of the horse must come first, so jockeys aren't allowed to use their crops so much. They've also cut down on the amount of medication horses can take on race days, because that medication could mask and underlying injury that then is been exacerbated and becomes what they call, you know, a catastrophic breakdown during a race that ends in the death of a horse.

Now, horses do die at racetracks. That is a sad reality of this sport. And actually, 26 in five months is not out of the ordinary. But what happened here is there were two spikes -- two times when a few horses died and a short space of time, and that has put the spotlight on this racetrack here in California.

But officials say that this is a nationwide issue that they need to try and reduce the number of horses who are dying. In this day and age where we take animal welfare more seriously as a society, they know that they have to change in order to survive.

Now, the district's attorney is right now looking into why so many horses are dying? The results to that investigation are not yet out. So, PETA and other animal rights groups are saying, well, while that investigations are ongoing, suspend all racing until we know what's happening.

But the officials here are saying, "We think the actual track is safe and we also want to carry on racing so we can see if these new measures that we're implementing to try and keep horses safe -- we want to see if they are working. So, racing, for now, continues here at the Santa Anita racetrack. Nick Watt, CNN, Arcadia, California.


CHURCH: I'm Rosemary Church, I'll be back in just a moment with another hour of CNN NEWSROOM. Do stay with us.