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Syrian army photographer describes torture and murder in Assad’s prisons

In book extracted in the Guardian, source codenamed Caesar tells of witnessing atrocities and says security services felt invulnerable
Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad has previously rejected Caesar’s allegations. Photograph: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Ian Black Middle East editor
Thursday 1 October 2015 06.00 BST Last modified on Thursday 1 October 2015 08.37 BST

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A Syrian army photographer who catalogued thousands of cases of torture and murder in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons has spoken out for the first time about witnessing atrocities that have been described as crimes against humanity and led to calls for the president’s prosecution.

The photographer, identified only by his codename Caesar, is now a refugee in Europe and fears he will be “eliminated” for the most damaging exposure of Syrian state violence since the uprising began in 2011, according to a book by the French journalist Garance le Caisne, extracted in the Guardian.
‘They were torturing to kill’: inside Syria’s death machine
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“I had never seen anything like it,” Caesar said. “Before the uprising, the regime tortured prisoners to get information; now they were torturing to kill. I saw marks left by burning candles, and once the round mark of a stove – the sort you use to heat tea – that had burned someone’s face and hair. Some people had deep cuts, some had their eyes gouged out, their teeth broken, you could see traces of lashes with those cables you use to start cars.

“There were wounds full of pus, as if they’d been left untreated for a long time and had got infected. Sometimes the bodies were covered with blood that looked fresh. It was clear they had died very recently.”

Caesar’s claims were first published by the Guardian and CNN in February 2014, along with statements by three eminent international lawyers that said his photographs, smuggled out on USB sticks before he defected with the help of an opposition group, showed the “systematic killing” of about 11,000 detainees in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to August 2013.

The story fuelled demands that Syrian officials be investigated for war crimes. Assad responded later that the allegations proved nothing because the publication and authentication of Caesar’s story was financed by the Gulf state of Qatar, which was committed, then as now, to his overthrow.
Russia has used its UN security council veto to block any investigation of the Syrian government in the international criminal court or the creation of an ad hoc court for Syria. But allegations of war crimes persist. A three-year operation to smuggle official documents out of the country produced enough evidence to indict Assad and 24 senior officials, according to an international investigative commission.

Two weeks ago Paris prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by the Syrian government between 2011 and 2013, the same period covered by Caesar’s testimony.

“Faced with these crimes that offend the human conscience, this bureaucracy of horror, faced with this denial of the values of humanity, it is our responsibility to act against the impunity of the assassins,” the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in a statement sent to AFP.

The timing of the French move is significant because it coincides with calls by Russia, Iran and some European countries to negotiate with Assad because only he is capable of fighting the jihadis of Islamic State. Britain recently softened its position by saying the Syrian president could remain in a transitional government for six months, but it said he would still have to face justice.

“The terrorists of Islamic State proclaim their atrocities on social networks; the Syrian state hides its misdeeds in the silence of its dungeons,” wrote Le Caisne. “Before Caesar, no insider had supplied evidence of the existence of the Syrian death machine. And these photos and documents were damning.”

Caesar believed that the Syrian security services felt “invulnerable”. He told the author: “They can’t imagine that one day they will be called to account for their abuses. They know that great powers support the regime. And they never thought that these photos would get out and be seen by the wider world.

“In fact, I wonder if the security service bosses aren’t more stupid than we think. Busy repressing demonstrators, looting the population, killing, they’ve forgotten that their abuses were being documented. Look at the chemical attack on Ghouta [in August 2013, which killed 1,400 people]. Those responsible knew there would be evidence of what they had done – yet they still fired their rockets.”

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Syria Bashar al-Assad Middle East and North Africa
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‘They seized three-year-old children and shot them’: Darkest atrocities of the Nazis laid bare in the secretly recorded conversations of German prisoners of war

  • Bestselling German book to be published in English next week
  • Chilling insight into what turns an ordinary soldier into a monster
  • Dispels the idea that it was only a few who committed such horrors

Some of the most brutal and horrifying atrocities of the Nazis at war are laid bare in secretly recorded conversations of captured German soldiers published in Britain for the first time today.

The prisoners, mostly ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen as opposed to SS hardliners, are overheard bragging about shooting women and children for sport as well as raping and slaughtering innocent civilians.

But unbeknown to them, British and U.S. intelligence were secretly eavesdropping on their private chats.

Transcripts made from the astonishingly candid recordings sat gathering dust on the shelves of the National Archives in Kew, all but forgotten until they were picked up by historian Sönke Neitzel in 2001.

His subsequent book ‘Soldiers; diaries of fighting, killing and dying’, caused a sensation when it was published in Germany last year. And next week it will be published in English for the first time.

It reads as a chilling examination of how war changes man, in this case the deep metamorphosis it wreaked on 40 per cent of German men between the years of 1939 and 1945 – the nearly 20 million who donned a uniform for their Fuehrer.

Both the ordinary German soldier, and the self-regarding officer corps, are condemned in their own words in the secret recordings, shatrtering the myth that excesses in wartime were the responsibility of a few fanatical party members.

The overheard conversations not only provided high-grade military intelligence – they also aided their British captors in trying to fathom what made ‘honourable’ warriors into killers no better than the S.S. or Gestapo.

What the captured men boasted of was not the betterment of professional soldiers, the thrill of a victory over fellow men-at-arms in a fair fight.

Their conversations betray how deep the Nazi state corrupted the military code, and in doing so, the men who considered themselves honourable – men like Oberleutnant Hans Hartigs from fighter squadron.

6 which won 26 Knights Crosses in combat on all fronts during the war.

Hartigs was speaking of the targets he liked to go for – unarmed civilians – when the microphones were switched on one day in January 1945.

‘I used to shoot at everything,’ he said laconically, ‘certainly not just military targets.  We liked to go for women pushing prams, often with children at their sides.  It was a kind of sport really…..’

Or this from another unnamed Oberleutnant of the Luftwaffe, captured on July 17 1940 after baling out from his aircraft over Kent; ‘It became a need in me to drop bombs.  It tingles me, gives me a fine feeling. Just as beautiful, in fact, as shooting at someone.’

This banishment of morality, of ethical behaviour, is apparent in transcript after transcript.  Hitler had boasted in the early days of the regime of turning the youth of Nazi Germany into ‘magnificent beasts of prey.’  But even wild beasts never killed for sport, like radio operator Eberhard Kehrle and infantryman Franz Kneipp.

Kehrle; ‘In the Caucasus, when one us went down, we didn’t need a lieutenant giving the orders, telling us what to do.  Pistols out, women and children, everything you saw…cleansed.’

Kneipp; ‘With us, one time, a partisan band had overrun a convoy of our wounded.  They offed everyone.  Half an hour later they were caught near Novgorod.  They were brought into a sandpit and then, from all sides, we let rip with the machine guns and the pistols….’

Kehrle; ‘That was too good for them.  They deserved to die slowly, not to be killed by shooting!’

In WW2, in a pre-Internet age, pre mobile-phone age – a time when a German soldier could be executed for taking a camera into combat –  they were, by and large, confident that their excesses would never be detected…..rape being one of them.

Germany has long castigated the leadership of the Red Army and Stalin himself for turning a blind eye to the mass rapes carried out by the conquering armies of Zhukov and Rossokovsky when they hit German territory in 1945.  But, in reality, it was payback on a massive scale for crimes carried out by men like Sgt. Mueller.

‘When I was in Kharkov,’ he said dreamily, clearly remembering happier times, ‘everything in the old town was destroyed.  It was a wonderful town with wonderful memories.  All the people spoke a little German that they had learned in school.

‘Also in Taganrog, wonderful cinemas and beautiful beach cafes. I went everywhere in the car.  You saw nothing but women.’

His friend Fausst says; ‘Oh, you bastard!’

Mueller went on; ‘They were working to repair things, these deadly beautiful girls.  We simply drove by them, tore them into the car, lay them down, and then chucked them out when we had finished.   Man, did they fly!’

Indoctrinated since their childhood by Nazi propaganda into believing they were supermen who could take what they wanted, defeat and capture had clearly not tilted their world view one bit.

One junior officer boasted of what he and his men did to a woman they thought was a Russian spy: ‘We beat her on the tits with a stick, clobbered her on the arse with a pistol, then all eight of us had her, then we threw her out and as she lay there, we threw grenades at her.

‘She didn’t half scream when they went off!’  Even one fellow German officer, Reimbold, was sickened by the telling of the tale and said; ‘Gentlemen, this is too much to bear.’

Aside from the depravity of individuals, the transcripts reveal that which the war generation, and in many ways the one that followed it, tried to deny: direct knowledge of the extermination programme of the Jews.

A travelling exhibition in Germany that started in 1995 which explored the relationship between Wehrmacht – army – units and the S.S. killing squads in places like Russia, the Baltics and Poland, has  already made the nefarious link between the two.  But in their own words, the soldiers imprisoned at the Trent Park detention centre north of London told the British in real time, as the killing was taking place, what they had seen and what they had done.

Major General Walter Bruns was one of them.  He recalled a ‘typical Jewish action’ that he witnessed one day in Russia.

‘The trenches were 24 metres long and roughly three metres wide.  They had to lie like sardines in a tin, heads towards the middle.  Above, six machine gunners delivered the neck-shots.  When I arrived, the trenches were pretty full already and the living had to lie on top before they got the neck-shot.  They were all arranged beautifully so not too much space was wasted.

‘They had already been robbed before they got here.  On this Sunday I saw a half-kilometre long queue shuffling forward step by step, the line up for death.  As they got nearer, they saw what awaited them.

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 Syria war: ‘unthinkable atrocities’ documented in report on Aleppo
Regime accused of crimes against humanity and opposition groups accused of war crimes in Amnesty report
Children are pulled from the rubble of a school in Aleppo allegedly bombed by forces loyal to President Assad
Kareem Shaheen in Beirut
Tuesday 5 May 2015 11.47 BST Last modified on Tuesday 5 May 2015 12.33 BST

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Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity by systematically using barrel bombs to kill civilians and destroy infrastructure in Aleppo, says Amnesty International.

The accusations come in a report released on Tuesday, two days after the regime bombed a school and community centre in a rebel-held district in the city where students were sitting exams.

Based on more than 100 interviews with current and former residents – many of them survivors and activists – and analysis of images and videos from the besieged city, the 74-page report documents “unthinkable atrocities”. These include air strikes that have mostly killed civilians, as well as arbitrary detention and torture by both sides of the conflict, it says.

The report also accuses armed opposition groups of committing war crimes by using improvised and inaccurate artillery against civilians.

Syrian children killed in government barrel-bomb attack, say rights groups
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Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement: “Widespread atrocities, in particular the vicious and unrelenting aerial bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods by government forces, have made life for civilians in Aleppo increasingly unbearable.

“These reprehensible and continual strikes on residential areas point to a policy of deliberately and systematically targeting civilians in attacks that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.” He added: “By relentlessly and deliberately targeting civilians, the Syrian government appears to have adopted a callous policy of collective punishment against the civilian population of Aleppo.”

Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, has endured three years of devastation since becoming a key battleground between the Assad regime and mostly Islamist rebels who control swaths of the city. A regime offensive aimed at severing rebel supply lines failed in February.

The rebels announced last week a joint “liberation” campaign to oust the regime from the city. Aleppo has long been the target of an unforgiving air campaign on rebel-held areas, which has killed and wounded thousands of civilians, particularly with the use of the barrel bomb, an improvised explosive device packed with TNT and other material and dropped manually from planes and helicopters.

The weapon, which is so inaccurate that its use is considered by some a de facto war crime, is often dropped far behind rebel front lines in order to avoid accidentally striking regime troops, contributing to its high civilian toll.

More than 3,000 civilians died in barrel-bomb attacks in Aleppo province from January 2014 to March 2015, along with 35 fighters, and over 12,000 have been killed by the weapon across Syria since 2012, according to monitoring groups. Last month alone, 110 people died in the city in 85 attacks. Assad categorically denies that barrel bombs even exist.

But, according to data gathered by rights organisations, the devices have struck dozens of public markets, mosques, schools, hospitals and medical centres in Aleppo.

The worst place in the world? Aleppo in ruins after four years of Syria war
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The Amnesty report paints a grim picture of the reality of civilian life in the city, besieged on all sides and facing starvation, with limited electricity, water, medicine and fuel, a city where cats have become “fast food” in rebel-held territories and where humanitarian access is imperilled by attacks on roads used by aid workers.

“The civilians that we spoke to really describe a collective trauma and fear that they have living under constant threat of barrel bombs in particular,” said Lama Fakih, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty.


One factory worker who survived a 2014 barrel-bomb attack is quoted in the report describing the scene: “After the bombing, I saw children without heads, body parts everywhere. It was how I imagine hell to be.” The use of indiscriminate weapons, and specifically barrel bombs, was condemned in a UN security council resolution that remains unenforced.

The report focuses on eight specific attacks that it says illustrate the “pure horror” of barrel bombs, including one on a market where 150 people were queuing for food baskets, and a so-called “double-tap” attack where a second barrel bomb is dropped when civil defence workers and residents rush to the scene of the first attack in an attempt to rescue survivors.

“It is a war crime to intentionally make civilian objects and civilians who are not directly participating in hostilities the target of attacks,” the report concludes. “Such a systematic attack on the civilian population, when carried out as part of government policy as appears to have been the case in Aleppo, would also constitute a crime against humanity.”

Aleppo: a Syrian nightmare – in pictures
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Amnesty also accused rebels of committing war crimes by using “hell cannons” – an inaccurate improvised artillery shell made of gas canisters, used to level buildings, which the rights group said have killed 600 civilians in 2014.

“Given the nature of the weapons used, many of these attacks are likely to constitute indiscriminate attacks, which, when they kill or injure civilians, are war crimes,” the report said. “Some of these attacks may have also constituted deliberate attacks on civilians or civilian objects, which are also war crimes.”

The report also accused both sides of the conflict of widespread torture of detainees, arbitrary arrests and hostage-taking. But the rights group reserved the most opprobrium for the regime, which it accused of precipitating the crisis and committing the overwhelming majority of abuses.

It concluded: “Both sides are violating international humanitarian law and must be held to account. However, throughout the more than four years since the crisis began, government forces have been responsible for the large majority of violations and crimes.

“Their responsibility for creating one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent history cannot be overstated. This crisis started with the state’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. Its response seemed tailored to send the message that they would stop at nothing to quash dissent.”

Amnesty called for the referral of the situation in Syria to the international criminal court, the punishing of all sides committing abuses and unhindered access for the UN’s independent commission of inquiry into the crisis.

“The government has been emboldened by the lack of response from the international community and specifically the security council,” said Fakih.

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