Syrian war crimes evidence strongest since Nuremberg trials, says prosecutor
The Syrian regime has produced a massive amount of information, says Stephen Rapp. (ABC News: Aaron Hollett)
Evidence of war crimes is often hard to find — it gets destroyed in the conflict, or no records are kept in the first place.
But war crimes prosecutor Stephen Rapp has told The World Today that the evidence of war crimes in Syria is the strongest since Nazi war crimes in World War II.
And he thinks prosecution of the highest echelons of the Syrian regime, including President Bashar al-Assad, is inevitable.
Mr Rapp said the group he chairs, Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), is working with Syrians inside the country and has been able to access more than 750,000 pages of regime documents.
“It’s a solid kind of evidence that we haven’t really had since Nuremberg, when the Nazis were prosecuted,” he said.
Like the Nazis, the Syrian regime writes everything down.
“It [has] security committees, popular committees, national crisis command centres — there’s a massive amount of information,” Mr Rapp explained.
The data collected about atrocities is more comprehensive than any he has seen from the post-war era, including the crimes in Rwanda and Liberia.
CIJA has employed almost 100 Syrians and Iraqis within the country, and some outside it, who continue to have access within the country, including former police, former lawyers and others who “know the system, who speak the language and can put all of this together.”
Mr Rapp said the organisation has 600,000 videos that have come out of Syria, shot with individuals’ smart phones, and another group, the Syrian Archive, has 2 million video records.
Some of the evidence has been provided by a former forensic photographer within the Syrian military police whose job it was to take photographs of hundreds of bodies arriving at a military hospital every day.
War crimes prosecutor Stephen Rapp says the evidence presents a strong chance of achieving prosecutions for war crimes in Syria. (Supplied)
“We were able to identify at least 800 of the victims, and they were almost all civilian demonstrators,” Mr Rapp said.
“[They] were generally civilians that had been tortured to death in Syrian military custody.
“And written on their bodies would be the numbers of the facilities where they’ve been killed.”
He explained that evidence of torture is particularly compelling.
“If somebody’s been tortured to death, their eye is gouged out, there’s acid all over their bodies, and the regime itself took the photo — you’ve got evidence the regime committed a crime.”
‘No escape in this life’
Russia and China blocked the UN Security Council from referring Syrian crimes to the International Criminal Court.
“It takes an international court at the end of the day to put out a warrant against the leader,” Mr Rapp said.
But there are other options for the pursuit of justice, he said, and cases are quietly being built against some mid-level individuals involved in torture and killings, with at least one arrest warrant imminent.
These avenues include prosecution at a national level, in a third country where victims have dual citizenship, and even under “universal jurisdiction”, where it is possible to prosecute torture anywhere in the world under the Convention Against Torture, which most countries have ratified.
“Getting those perpetrators into custody will be challenging, but more and more cases like that will be built over time,” Mr Rapp said.
He said Syria’s ability to thumb its nose at justice, backed by Russia, sends a message that others can commit similar crimes — torturing, and killing opponents.
“We don’t want that message sent, and that’s why I work so hard to try to find other ways — even with the blockage at the UN Security Council — to show that there will be justice.”
Stephen Rapp says there will come a day when there is an arrest warrant for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. (Reuters: SANA handout)
Mr Rapp believes the documents, photographic evidence, videos and witness testimonies represent a strong chance of achieving prosecutions for war crimes.
“The pressure will build, and if Assad lives a few more decades, there will come a day when he’ll be under an international arrest warrant,” he said.
“Whether he’ll be caught, who knows, but certainly these kinds of crimes are crimes that the world doesn’t forget.
“With these kinds of crimes, the message has to be: there is no escape in this life,” Mr Rapp said.
He said the Syrians he has spoken to want recognition of the crimes against their loved ones, more so than vengeance.
“So we’re not going to quit on this. I continue to tell them as long as I draw breath, we’ll continue to fight to open the doors to justice for the crimes in Syria.”