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Gathering evidence of Syria war crimes in ‘The Assad Files’

Five years of brutal civil war in Syria have killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more. Now, a new journalistic project aims to document President Bashar al-Assad’s principal role in the systematic campaign of detention, torture and murder that has left his nation in the throes of chaos. Hari Sreenivasan sits down with Ben Taub of The New Yorker to discuss “The Assad Files.”

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, we turn to the effort to catalog war crimes in real time during the ongoing Syrian civil war.

    Hari Sreenivasan has that story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Five years of war have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Syria in this many-sided and brutal conflict. But there's now a project under way that's trying to document the principal role of the Bashar al-Assad regime in the killing and its systematic campaign of detention, torture and murder.

    The story of this remarkable forensic effort and the appalling acts it catalogs is told in this week's "New Yorker" by reporter Ben Taub in his piece called "The Assad Files."

    Ben Taub joins me now.

    So, what is this organization? It's not the United Nations. It's not the International Criminal Court. But it seems almost more effective in the amount of evidence that it's gathered on what's happening in Syria.

  • BEN TAUB, Contributing Writer, The New Yorker:

    Right.

    So, it's an independent agency called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. And because they're independent, they don't — they have a — they can operate with a very high risk tolerance and outside of the geopolitics that usually govern permissions for such AN investigation.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But what's the type of evidence that they have now and how do we know that Assad is responsible for some of these acts?

  • BEN TAUB:

    So, they have collected documentation evidence from all over the country. They have smuggled about 600,000 pages out of Syria at very high risk. They have had — one courier was killed, two have been wounded, and — but in recent years, they have gotten much better with operational security.

    And they have also…

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    These are basically people who are deciding to leak documents and somehow get it in the hands of the CIJA.

  • BEN TAUB:

    So there is a leaker from Damascus. He was — he worked within Assad's innermost security committee as a — as a mole essentially. He was hired basically to process all of the paperwork for Assad's innermost security committee.

    And he was a member of the opposition from the beginning. And so it's from his testimony that we know a lot of how that committee worked. And he basically saw that, every single night, Assad's crisis cell which he formed in response to the Syrian crisis in 2011, and they would demand security reports from all over the country.

    And this young man named Abdelmajid Barakat would collect all of the reports, read them and draft a summary for them to look at as they had the meeting. Now, after their meetings, when they have decided how to handle each security issue, they would send a list of recommendations to Assad through a courier, and he would then review them, sometimes cross things out, sometimes add…

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    President Assad would actually read these reports?

  • BEN TAUB:

    Absolutely.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Edit them, sign them?

  • BEN TAUB:

    And then return them to the crisis cell.

    And once they had clear instructions, they would then send them through their individual chains of command to the distant provinces, where the security agents on the ground were actually implementing them to put down the revolution.

    In practice, the policy itself, while repressive, is not inherently criminal, necessarily. But in the course of its implantation, tens of thousands of Syrians were detained for months or even years, tortured into false confessions.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So tell me the story of Mazen al-Hamada, a character that you use to do detail some of the atrocities that are happening in Syria.

  • BEN TAUB:

    Yes, so Hamada, he was an activist in Deir el-Zour, came from a middle-class family, worked for an oil company. So when he was arrested in early 2012, he was dragged into the air force intelligence branch in al-Mezzeh Military Airport.

    And he was after a couple of months in detention, with no idea where he was at this point, he was taken into an interrogation room and he was first tortured by — they burned out cigarettes on his body. They beat him. They strung him up by his wrists, so that his feet were off the ground, and he felt his wrists were going to get cut off.

    All the while, they were interrogating him over the same questions that the crisis cell had devised in its plan to put down the revolution.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    At one point, he's so injured from this process that they move him to what they call a hospital.

  • BEN TAUB:

    So, Mazen was sent to Hospital 601, which is a military hospital. And this turned out to be the place where they would process the bodies of detainees who had been killed in security branches.

    He was brought there. And on his first night, he had to go to the bathroom. And a guard dragged him to the bathroom door and let him in. And when he opened the first bathroom stall, he saw a pile of bodies. And he started to feel like this was — he was in a nightmare.

    And he went to the second stall and opened that, and there were two more bodies with their eyes gouged out. And there was another body by the sink. And he felt like he was losing his grip on reality. He walked out to the guard and said, you know, where am I supposed to pee? And the guard told him to pee on top of the bodies.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How do we verify his version of events is true?

  • BEN TAUB:

    So, after he was released, he spoke to a group of activists and gave his full testimony in detail with a published dateline back in October 2013 in Arabic.

    A few months after that, a military police photographer who had defected, he spoke to investigators and forensic analysts, and a report was leaked. And he had this collection of 55,000 pictures with 11,000 bodies in it. And he was photographing them at the hospital where Mazen was staying, and Mazen's testimony came out first.

    And so his account lines up with — it was later corroborated by a huge quantity of material.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It seems like they have all the necessary ammunition to prosecute Assad if he ever gets into a court.

  • BEN TAUB:

    Exactly.

    So, they have the chain of command. And their thought is that, eventually, when the international community catches up and there is a resolution to the crisis in Syria, that, some way or another, they will be able to hand over their evidence to a court that can prosecute it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The report is called "The Assad Files" by Ben Taub in this week's "New Yorker."

    Thanks so much for joining us.

  • BEN TAUB:

    Thank you.

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