PETALING JAYA, June 11 — A Syrian man who defected and smuggled out photographs of Syrians tortured to death has exposed the alleged atrocities at the hand of the country’s Bashar al-Assad regime.
Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of US-based advocacy group Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), said “Caesar” was a normal man unaffiliated politically with the government or protesters, but showed courage when thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
Caesar, the codename for a Syrian who worked in the military police for 25 years, had the job of photographing accidents that fell under the Defence Ministry’s jurisdiction such as drownings, car crashes or suicides.
In April 2011, Caesar was one day ordered to photograph “accidental deaths”, but told his family he was unable to comply when it was obvious to him the 15 bodies he saw at a Damascus hospital were peaceful protesters tortured to death.
Although wanting to leave Syria, Caesar agreed to stay on to obtain proof of the torture to show people outside of the country, smuggling out nearly 55,000 photographs and until there was a fear he would get caught.
“So Caesar stayed for two and a half years from April 2011 to August 2013, working officially with the Assad government as a forensic photographer within the military police, taking pictures every single day of men, women, children, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Kurds that were being tortured to death in the most horrific ways.
“Eyes were gouged out, acid was used, unbelievable types of torture, honestly when I first saw the photos, I could not sleep for weeks, it’s hard to imagine anyone could be so heartless, that anyone could be so inhumane,” Mouaz said.
Nineteen of the photos depicting corpses of Syrians’ tortured to death in the regime’s facilities and hospitals were shown in Petaling Jaya yesterday.
According to SETF, the photos — which had been censored at the most graphic bits — were mostly taken in Syrian military hospitals.
The thousands of corpses show signs of torture such as mangled genitals, bruises and dried blood from beatings, acid and electric burns, emaciation, and strangulation marks, SETF said.
“This is only in Damascus, one city. This is only in 2.5 years of this six-year conflict, so it is a snapshot in geography and time. So can you imagine 55 thousand pictures in Caesar’s time came out, how many more would come out if Caesar had remained until 2015 instead of 2013? And how many others remain in Assad jail?” Mouaz said.
Caesar now lives in hiding in Western Europe with his family on a meagre stipend, conscious that he has to be careful for his safety and for his family’s sake.
“He’s not like someone who wanted to do this, he just did it because he had to. It’s really heartbreaking because you would think someone like Caesar — a true hero — would actually have a normal life, would know that his kids are going to be ok. But he himself is struggling but he continues to speak.
“And hopefully the parliament in Malaysia will allow us to bring these files and we can bring Caesar for a private meeting without cameras and let him talk and tell people what happened like he did in the Congress of America, like he did in the United Nations,” Mouaz said.
Mouaz said the photos have been exhibited at the EU Parliament, the US congress and at the UN general assembly, adding that it will next be shown in Turkey, Spain and Denmark.
Mouaz said the first court case has been filed in Spain where one of the torture victims’ sister is a citizen, while families of other torture victims are unable to go to court to seek justice if are only Syrian citizens and they do not have dual nationality elsewhere.
According to Mouaz, the ongoing civil war in Syria which is now in its seventh year is conservatively estimated to have claimed the lives of half a million people. He said 14 million or over half of Syria’s 23 million population have been displaced, including an estimated three million displaced internally while others have become refugees.
“Tens of thousands, many of them women and children remain in Assad jails, these are not normal jails, you go and never return unless you are extremely lucky or by a miracle of god you are able to escape,” he said, adding that the Syrian government has not allowed the release of women and children despite it being non-threatening to national security.