Geopolitics

Call Him Caesar - Inside The Syrian Torture Photos

The inside story of the Syrian army photographer assigned to log images of the victims of torture. One day, he'd seen enough, and joined the opposition - photos in hand.

Signs of torture on the corpse of a victim of the Syrian regime.
Signs of torture on the corpse of a victim of the Syrian regime.
Benjamin Barthe and Stéphanie Maupas

MONTREUX – Behind the closed doors of a hotel room in this Swiss city, away from the commotion of the nearby peace conference on Syria, a man is scrolling through photographs of corpses on his computer screen.

Often naked or covered with rags, the bodies bear traces of different types of torture: laceration, strangulation, electrocution, mutilation. On most of the chests, numbers written with a marker identify the victims. For others, it's a piece of cardboard placed at their feet: "It's the number that's given to the detainees when they're arrested and when they're pronounced dead," explains the man, an opponent to Bashar al-Assad's government named Emadeddin Rachid.

"The numbers follow each other," he says. "It's assembly-line killing."

These pictures, to which Le Monde, has had exclusive access, fed the report made public (see here) ahead of the conference by CNN and The Guardian, and which accuses the Syrian regime of having tortured and killed on an "industrial scale."

The study, commissioned by Qatar and carried out by a British law firm as well as with international law experts, is based on material of a nature and on a scale unprecedented in Syria: 55,000 pictures representing some 11,000 people killed in custody.

How were they verified as authentic? The person who's responsible for this massive leak is none other than the man who took the pictures: a photographer with the Syrian military police who defected in 2013, identified in the report under the name "Caesar."

Emadeddin Rachid is one of the people behind the operation, which landed with a thud at the would-be peace conference and destabilized the Syrian delegation in front of the international press. Aged 48, a former deputy head of the Sharia Faculty at the University of Damascus, he is also one of the leaders of the Syrian National Movement, a moderate Islamist branch represented inside the Syrian National Coalition.

In all likelihood, it's thanks to an old connection between a member of his movement and "Caesar" that contact was established. The man was for a long time in charge of taking pictures of crime or accident scenes, but when the revolution started in 2011, he was entrusted with a whole new task: take photographs of real or supposed opponents who had been tortured to death or executed in cold blood in the government's prisons.

This military census work, as meticulous as it is macabre, was carried out with two goals in mind: First, for the authorities to be able to deliver a death certificate to the families looking for a disappeared brother or father, putting the blame on a "respiratory problem" or a "heart attack;" second, for the torturers to be able to confirm to their superiors that the dirty work was done.

"Killing its opponents is the regime's routine," explains Rachid. "Registring torture is nothing more than the continued pursuit of the routine."

A pro-Assad rally in Syria in 2011 (Sammy.aw)

At the military hospital where he was assigned, "Caesar" used to receive up to 50 bodies per day. Each of them required between 15 and 30 minutes of work, as four or five pictures were required for the file. The spectacle of the Syrian secret services' savagery was too much for him, and convinced the forensic photographer to join the rebellion.

"Rigorously authenticated"

It took six months to set up the channel to collect the pictures. "A network of anonymous people, including fighters of the Free Syrian Army, risked their lives for this operation," Rachid says. An extra four months were needed to smuggle "Caesar" and his family out of Syria.

The London-based Carter-Ruck law firm then called upon three forensic examiners and three former international prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia.

Qatar was well aware that its unequivocal opposition to Bashar al-Assad might jeopardize the credibility of the final report, so it accepted to finance the study on condition that "the evidence is properly and rigorously authenticated," says Cameron Doley, one of the lawyers of the firm.

The experts buried themselves in the flow of pictures and grew convinced that "it was very unlikely" that they could have been forged. During the month of January, they met with "Caesar" on three occasions, asking question after question, eventually confirming that the man is indeed who he claims to be.

Although he supported the anti-Assad uprising, "Caesar" "gave an honest account of his experiences," according to the report, adding that he never pretended to have witnessed the executions.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir Desmond de Silva, who led the inquiry team, rejected any claims of interference from Doha. Just because Qatar has "a vested interest does not mean the evidence is untrue," he said. "And we were meticulous in the way we went about our work and indeed we did so in that knowledge that in Syria, there are many conflicts and there are many interests both national and international."

Emadeddin Rachid showed Le Monde a scanned copy of a death file made of "Caesar's" pictures. The form carried the heading of the "Syrian Arab Republic, General Command of the army" and on the postmortem pictures, the seal "Military Police" is affixed.

Le Monde was also able to see several pictures of a warehouse, turned into a mass grave, with some 15 emaciated corpses scattered on the floor. "This is the garage of the military hospital of Mezzeh," says Rachid. "That's where they throw the corpses when the morgue is full. All these bodies, all skin and bones: It inevitably makes you think about Nazi concentration camps."

"Caesar" and his companions now dream of the day when they can hand the photographs to an international court. "If justice doesn't take over and doesn't do what needs to be done after such massacres, then you can bet that there will be counter-massacres," Rachid warns.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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