The Wall Street Journal reports: At Hospital 601, not far from the presidential palace in Damascus, Syrian guards ran out of space to store the dead and had to use an adjoining warehouse where military vehicles were repaired.
A forensic photographer working for Syria’s military police walked the rows and took pictures of the emaciated and disfigured corpses, most believed to be anti-Assad activists. Numbers written on the bodies and on white cards, the photographer said, told regime bureaucrats the identities of the deceased, when they died and which branch of the Syrian security services had held them.
U.S. investigators who have reviewed many of the photos say they believe at least 10,000 corpses were cataloged this way between 2011 and mid-2013. Investigators believe they weren’t victims of regular warfare but of torture, and that the bodies were brought to the hospital from the Assad regime’s sprawling network of prisons. They were told some appeared to have died on site.
Last year, the Syrian military-police photographer defected to the West. Investigators later gave him the code name Caesar to disguise his identity. He turned over to U.S. law-enforcement agencies earlier this year a vast trove of postmortem photographs from Hospital 601 that he and other military photographers took over the two-year period, which he helped smuggle out of the country on digital thumb drives.
Over the ensuing months, U.S. investigators pored over the photos, which depicted the deaths and the elaborate counting system, and started to debrief Caesar and other activists involved in his defection. U.S. and European investigators have since concluded not only that the images were genuine, but that they offered the best evidence to date of an industrial-scale campaign by the government of Bashar al-Assad against its political opponents. U.S. Ambassador-at-large Stephen Rapp, head of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, has compared the pattern to some of the most notorious acts of mass murder of the past century.
This account, based on interviews with war-crimes investigators in the U.S. and Europe, more than a dozen defectors, and opposition leaders working with Caesar, provides fresh details about Syria’s crackdown on its political opponents and the central role of Hospital 601 in processing bodies and documenting the deaths for the government.
Investigators haven’t finished analyzing the entire cache of photographs and are still trying to gather evidence to fully understand the regime’s role in the deaths. Prosecutors must be careful about jumping to conclusions before all the evidence is in, cautioned a senior U.S. official, who noted that investigators are far from finished debriefing Caesar.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation unit that investigates genocide and war crimes, and other agencies, hope to soon get a more detailed account of what happened at Hospital 601 from Caesar, officials said. Some U.S. officials want to use Caesar’s photographs, which show bodies that appear to have been strangled, beaten or disfigured, to build a case for a potential war-crimes prosecution of the Assad regime. It is unclear when, if ever, such a case might be brought. [Continue reading…]