‘Systematic Torture and Killing’ — a New Report Points Fingers at Syria’s Assad

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Syrian National Movement

This image, included in the report, shows alleged marks left behind from strangulation. Exhibits of photographs in the report show signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing, according to the report

A shocking new report on the Syrian regime’s use of torture and starvation has been released by a team of renowned war-crimes prosecutors, threatening to upend Syrian peace talks scheduled to start on Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland.

The 31-page confidential report, first disclosed by CNN and the Guardian newspaper, lays out in excruciating detail “direct evidence” of the “systematic torture and killing” of thousands of men between the ages of 20 and 40 who are thought to be victims of the regime’s notorious security agencies.

The report’s authors, David Crane and Desmond de Silva, both former chief prosecutors of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Geoffrey Nice, former lead prosecutor in the case against ex-Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, based their findings on tens of thousands of meticulously catalogued photos taken by a military-police photographer turned defector. For security reasons, this source is identified in the report only as Caesar.

CNN noted that it could not independently confirm the authenticity of the photographs or the documents, but said it relied on the integrity of the investigating team, which, in addition to the international criminal prosecutors, included a forensic pathologist, a forensic anthropologist and an expert in digital imaging. TIME could not independently verify the images or the report.

(MORE: Syria’s Humanitarian Disaster: How Aid Has Become a Weapon of War)

In an interview, de Silva told CNN that the photographs of emaciated bodies reminded him of Holocaust survivors. The yellowed skin and hollowed out bodies were not just a result of famine, he said, but indicated the use of starvation as a method of torture. They were “reminiscent of the pictures of those [who] were found still alive in the Nazi death camps after World War II,” he said.

The Syrian war has been defined in part by the prolific documentation of brutality, both by the regime and the opposition, on social-media sites like Twitter and YouTube. But rarely has such footage been so exhaustively analyzed. Of the nearly 27,000 photographs provided by Caesar, images of 835 deceased people were subjected to a more formal analysis, according to the report. Another sample of images of 150 separate individuals were also dissected in detail, producing excruciating descriptions of torture techniques.

Nor were the photographs considered in isolation, as often happens with documentation posted by various activist or proregime groups to social-media sites. They were accompanied by the photographer and official documentation from military hospitals, complete with stamps, signatures and dates. The corpses, note the report’s authors, were numbered and photographed, suggesting “the killings were systematic, ordered, and directed from above.” Most likely it was a bureaucratic effort to keep track of detainees in order to be able to give a plausible cause of death to inquiring families. “This evidence could underpin a charge of crimes against humanity — without any shadow of a doubt,” said de Silva, who told CNN that his team had been asked to put together its report by a British law firm funded by the government of Qatar.

(MORE: Syrian Peace Talks: The U.N. Extends, and Then Regrets, an Invitation to Iran)

A charge of crimes against humanity, if taken to the U.N. Security Council or the International Criminal Court, could have a profound effect on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future, as well as that of Syria. The threat of a war-crimes trial could have the perverse effect of steeling Assad’s resolve to stay in power no matter the cost. The report’s unexpected release — just before peace talks commence — means that Assad’s alleged crimes will cast a shadow over the whole event, skewing an outcome that was already on edge. Even as CNN and the Guardian released their stories, the Syrian opposition was threatening to pull out of the talks, infuriated by a last-minute invitation by U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to Iran. The invitation was withdrawn on Monday after Iran said it did not back the 2012 political-transition deal that underpins the talks.

Now that the talks are going forward, says Oubai Shahbandar, adviser to the Syrian opposition coalition, the timing could actually work in the opposition’s favor. “This is unmistakable proof that the regime exists simply to maintain power,” Shahbandar says, “and will use whatever brutal means it has at its disposal to ensure Assad remains in power, which is why a political process is so crucial.”