In the northern city of Raqqa, the condemned — some civilians, some soldiers, shabiha or alleged Assad collaborators — are brought blindfolded and handcuffed to the city square to be shot in the head in public. Once celebrated as one of Syria’s first fully liberated cities, Raqqa, now under the control of the al-Qaida backed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has become infamous for brutal public executions and other fear tactics carried out by extremists.
The executions are carried out swiftly and without legal counsel. Asyad al-Mousa, a 34-year-old lawyer, is dedicated to documenting the mounting number of war crimes committed in his city by both the regime and the rebels. “When I collect the proof,” he says, “I feel as though I have done something to protect those people’s human rights.”
Asyad and fellow legal activists protested an execution ordered by secret courts four months ago. “We made a camp in the square where they were executed and we wrote on a banner, ‘Here is the light of freedom and you will not take it,’” he says. Although the three-day protest was too late to save the condemned, there were no more public executions until last month, when 17 people were killed in the city and the surrounding villages.
Asyad and other lawyers in Raqqa oppose the death squads’ practice of denying the accused their rights. He says he visited a group of condemned regime soldiers who had been imprisoned by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and who were later kidnapped by ISIL. “Their conditions were good,” he says. “I managed to connect them to their parents to let their parents know they were OK.” According to Asyad, the FSA were trying to arrange a prisoner exchange before ISIL kidnapped them. ISIL then kidnapped the prisoners.
But not all public executions weigh on Asyad. “It depends,” he says. “I am not happy, but some of them deserve it. Once I saw the corpse of the man who had tortured me under the regime. He deserved it and I didn’t feel bad.”
Asyad says the worst human rights abuses are taking place in the prisons run by Raqqa’s armed militias. Gaining access to these prisons is virtually impossible and he has to rely on the testimony of the few that leave alive to fill his records. “They testify secretly because they are very scared,” he says. “They talk about torture worse than what the regime commits, especially by ISIL.”
Survivors of ISIL prisons talk of “The Scorpion.” With his hands tied diagonally behind his back, the prisoner is left for hours in a squeeze box measuring 60 cm by 40 cm, with a bolted iron door. “If they forget him, it’s too bad for him,” Asyad says. “This is not to mention the beatings.”
Asyad and his colleagues also struggle to document the war crimes that could one day be used to charge Bashar al-Assad’s regime with crimes against humanity.
Footage and proof
On Sept. 29, he was 500 meters away when he says government planes struck a Raqqa high school. “When I arrived I saw about 30 people in pieces,” he says. “We removed the body parts and took the survivors to hospital.”
Asyad and his team cover all bases when they gather evidence. At the scene, he interviewed survivors who said the plane had fired two rockets as children arrived at school at 8 a.m. He returned to the school later that day to document witness statements by video and to gather footage of the attack itself.
He was not as lucky collecting rocket fragments; the local children had taken them to use as toys.
The original video of the attack, collected by the lawyer, could be used as evidence should the regime be tried for war crimes. He says YouTube uploads mean little in a court of law. “I thought the video alone would be enough, but now I know I have to keep this video card safe. I will guard it with my life.”
Once he’d finished for the day, Asyad learned his 16-year-old cousin was among the dead. “He was one of the corpses I collected,” he says. “I lifted him and helped the responders, but I didn’t see that it was him until I was at the hospital.”
Still, Asyad, who has four young children, says he now fears ISIL more than the regime. He believes he is protected in Raqqa because he is known among the local Islamist leaders as a Muslim conservative, open to their ideas and religious beliefs. But he draws a line between himself and ISIL. “I haven’t reached their level of extremism because I’m normal,” he says, “and I believe in justice.”