Monday, 11 April 2016
The Assad Files
'After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war. In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities.
The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before serving for six years as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told me that the CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area.”
On March 30, 2011, Assad addressed the nation from the rotunda of the Syrian parliament building. He had just sacked his cabinet, and many people expected him to announce liberalizing reforms. Instead, he declared his intention to suppress dissent in the brutal tradition of his father, Hafez al-Assad. “Syria is facing a great conspiracy, whose tentacles extend” to foreign powers that were plotting to destroy the country, he said. “There is no conspiracy theory,” he added. “There is a conspiracy.” He closed with an ominous directive: “Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty, and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it.” He emphasized, “There is no compromise or middle way in this.”
Two days later, protests across the country grew larger. Assad had already formed a secret security committee, called the Central Crisis Management Cell, to coördinate a crackdown. Its chairman was Mohammad Said Bekheitan, the highest-ranking official in the ruling Baath Party, after Assad; the other members—who were all Assad-dynasty confidants—were routinely shuffled among the top positions in the military, the ministries, and the security-intelligence apparatus.
The group decided to hire someone to process all the paperwork. One of the applicants was Abdelmajid Barakat, a twenty-four-year-old with slicked-back hair. Early in the unrest, he had joined one of Syria’s first organized revolutionary bodies. Now, in the regime’s haste to make the Crisis Cell more efficient, it was employing a member of the opposition to process confidential security memos from all over the country. At the end of each meeting, the Crisis Cell agreed on a plan for every security issue. Then Bekheitan, the chairman, signed the minutes, and a courier delivered them to Assad at the Presidential palace. Barakat learned that Assad reviewed the proposals, signed them, and returned them to the Crisis Cell for implementation. Sometimes he made revisions, crossing out directives and adding new ones. He also issued decrees without consulting the Crisis Cell. Barakat was certain that no security decision, no matter how small, was made without Assad’s approval.
Shortly after Barakat began working for the Crisis Cell, he started leaking documents. Though the regime publicly claimed that it was allowing peaceful demonstrations, security memos showed that intelligence agents were targeting protesters and media activists, and shooting at them indiscriminately.
Mazen al-Hamada was born in 1977, the youngest of seventeen children in an educated, middle-class family in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. His siblings grew up to be pharmacists, teachers, and lawyers, and he became a field specialist at Schlumberger, the international oil-services company, which operated in the rich oil fields around Deir Ezzor. Members of Hamada’s family were outspoken critics of the government, and even before the revolution they were routinely followed and periodically arrested. They were especially outraged by the government’s failure to do anything about the widening gap between the rich and the poor. “It was all organized to benefit the élites,” Hamada told me.
Hamada and his friends were excited by the prospect of revolution, and every Wednesday they began meeting inside the neighborhood mosque, the Othman bin Affan, to organize protests that would take place after Friday prayers. “It was a logistical issue,” he told me. “Everyone went to the mosque on a Friday, everyone came out.” He laughed, and added, “If we could have come out of churches, we would have come out of churches!”
Hamada often videotaped protests as well as the security response. The regime had cut off the Internet in his neighborhood, so he uploaded the videos to YouTube at a relative’s workplace. Some of them ended up in Arabic news broadcasts. To counter such activities, the governor told the security committee, “We should nominate Internet experts among our comrades to deal with hostile Web sites spitting out their venom in the country, such as Facebook.”
On the evening of August 5, 2011, the Central Crisis Management Cell held its usual meeting at the Baath Party Regional Command. In five months of revolution, the protests had spread to several more provinces, which members of the committee attributed to “the laxness in handling the crisis,” according to documents captured by the CIJA. They blamed “weak coördination and coöperation among security bodies.” That evening, they devised a plan to target specific categories of people.
First, all security branches were to launch daily raids against protest organizers and “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media.” Next, “once each sector has been cleansed of wanted people,” security agents would coördinate with Baathist loyalists, neighborhood militias, and community leaders to insure that opposition activists could not return to those areas. Third, they would “establish a joint investigation committee at the province level,” made up of representatives from all of the security branches, which would interrogate detainees. The results “shall be sent to all security branches, so that they can be used in the identification of new targets that need to be prosecuted.”
Mazen al-Hamada’s name soon appeared on an arrest list in Deir Ezzor. Two of his brothers were also wanted, as was one of his brothers-in-law. One day in March, 2012, a doctor asked Hamada if he would smuggle baby formula to a woman in Darayya, a rebellious suburb of Damascus. He and his nephews gathered fifty-five packages of formula, hid them under their clothes, and travelled to meet her at a café. As soon as Hamada handed over the bags, security agents handcuffed him and his nephews, pulled their shirts over their heads, and shoved them into an S.U.V. “I had no idea where we were going,” Hamada said. “The whole way, they were telling us, ‘We’re going to execute you.’ ”
Two weeks later, in the Air Force-intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport, the prisoners were put in a small hangar, a little more than forty feet long and twenty feet wide. A hundred and seventy people were packed inside, their arms wrapped around their legs, chins on their knees. “You’re rotting,” Hamada told me. “There’s no air, there’s no sunlight. Your nails are really long, because you can’t cut them. So when you scratch yourself you tear your skin off.” The prisoners weren’t able to wash themselves or to change their underwear. The sores of scabies and other skin ailments covered their bodies. Throughout the country, detainees routinely drank water out of toilets and died from starvation, suffocation, and disease. “People went crazy,” Hamada said. “People would lose their memories, people would lose their minds.” Eventually, he was transferred to a solitary-confinement cell, which he shared with ten people.
One day, Hamada was blindfolded and dragged to another room for questioning. The lead interrogator, whom Hamada knew as Suhail, began by establishing Hamada’s identity. (Some people were detained and tortured by accident; their names were similar to those on wanted lists.) When Suhail asked for information about other opposition activists he had met in Damascus, Hamada hesitated. The torture began. “At the beginning, they were using cigarettes,” he said. “They would stub them out on my legs.” He rolled up his jeans to the knee and showed me four round scars on his left leg, five on his right. There were burns on his thighs, too. They also poured water on him, and shocked him with wires and prods. To end the abuse, Hamada gave up the names of friends who had already been killed in Deir Ezzor.
Suhail’s assistants told Hamada that if he admitted to carrying weapons he would be released. He didn’t confess, so they cracked four of his ribs. At that point, he agreed that he had been armed with a hunting rifle, and they let him down. But, to better suit terrorism charges, Suhail wanted the confession to include a Kalashnikov. Hamada refused, so, he said, “they stripped me out of my underwear and brought a plumbing clamp,” of the kind typically used to moderate pressure in hoses. “They put it on my penis, and started tightening it.” Hamada recalled Suhail asking, “Are you going to admit it, or shall I cut it off?” Hamada agreed that he had carried a Kalashnikov, so Suhail released the clamp and asked how many clips of ammunition Hamada had carried. “How many clips do you want me to have?” Hamada asked. Suhail reminded him that he had to confess on his own, so Hamada said, “I had five bullets.” That wasn’t good enough, Suhail told him: “I need two magazines.” The torture escalated until Hamada confessed to everything they asked.
Coerced confessions served no apparent intelligence-gathering purposes, but they did lend a legalistic veneer to the detention process. After confessing to violent crimes, anti-government activists could face serious charges, and, if convicted, be kept in detention for years. The confessions also perpetuated the illusion of a vast conspiracy against Syria, as detainees admitted to engaging in sedition or treason.
The brutality took a toll on many interrogators, too. In at least one case, an interrogator begged a detainee to admit to a crime so that he could stop hurting him. “They were very much of the opinion that they had to produce results,” Chris Engels told me. “The ramifications of not doing their job well were real, and there’s evidence of what happened to people who did not.” The final line of the Crisis Cell’s targeting policy ordered the heads of security branches to “periodically supply the National Security Bureau with the names of security agents who are irresolute or unenthusiastic.” Some of them ended up in Hamada’s cell.
In early 2013, after nearly a year of detention, Hamada lay on the floor of the hangar. He had been interrogated and tortured seven or eight times. An infection in his eye was dripping pus. The skin on his legs was gangrenous. he next day, the head of interrogation came to the cell and informed Hamada that he was being sent to Hospital 601, a military hospital that sits at the base of Mt. Mezzeh. Hamada had heard of Hospital 601. Several other detainees had been sent there, and the few who had returned, Hamada said, had cautioned, “This is not a hospital—this is a slaughterhouse.” Despite Hamada’s condition, guards hit him during the drive to the hospital. One used a green pipe; in Arabic, al-akhdar refers to a green object, so security agents all over Syria taunted detainees by calling this weapon Lakhdar Brahimi, who was then the U.N. special envoy for Syria.
In the hospital corridor, male and female nurses started hitting Hamada with their shoes and calling him a terrorist. When he got to the ward, he was tied to a bed with two other prisoners. A nurse asked him about his symptoms, then beat him with a stick. A U.N. report from later that year notes, “Some medical professionals have been co-opted into the maltreatment” of detainees at Hospital 601. Hamada was in disbelief as much as he was in pain.
That night, Hamada woke up needing to use the bathroom. A guard hit him all the way to the toilets, but he went in alone. When he opened the first stall, he saw a pile of corpses, battered and blue. He found two more in the second stall, emaciated and missing their eyes. There was another body by the sink. Hamada came out in panic, but the guard sent him back in and told him, “Pee on top of the bodies.” He couldn’t. He started to feel that he was losing his grip on reality. According to the U.N. inquiry, dead detainees were “kept in the toilets” at multiple security branches in Damascus.
Later that night, two drunk soldiers walked into the ward. One of them bellowed, “Who wants medicine?” Several detainees lifted their hands. The doctors hadn’t given Hamada any drugs—only a mostly empty bag of intravenous fluid—but one of his bedmates, who had been in the ward for several days, warned him not to volunteer. The soldier selected an eager prisoner. With the inmate kneeling at his feet, head facing the floor, the soldier grabbed a sharp weapon and started hacking at the base of his skull, severing the spinal cord from the head. Then he ordered another patient to drag the body to the bathroom. The U.N. report says of Hospital 601, “Many patients have been tortured to death in this facility.” The soldier called himself Azrael, after the archangel of death; other survivors recall him murdering patients in similarly horrifying ways.
On the second day, he begged a doctor to send him back to the Air Force-intelligence branch. The doctor noted that Hamada was still sick. “No, no, no, I am totally cured,” he said. On the fifth day, he was escorted out of Hospital 601 by the same guards who had deposited him there. “You animal, you son of a bitch,” they said. “You still didn’t die.” They hit him all the way back to the branch, then strung him up by his wrists for four hours.
In the early hours of August 21st, the Syrian government launched rockets carrying sarin gas into densely populated neighborhoods in Damascus, killing more than fourteen hundred people. In response, President Obama, who had earlier committed to a “red line” should Assad use chemical weapons, announced, “I have decided the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.” He said he would wait for congressional approval, but, he continued, “what message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death, in plain sight, and pay no price?”
Shortly after the chemical attack, Hamada and many other prisoners were transported to al-Mezzeh, without explanation. Agents moved the detainees to a large, empty hangar on the base. At least one of the sarin-gas rockets is believed to have been launched from the base at al-Mezzeh—it was a logical target for an American strike. Inside the hangar, guards jeered at the detainees. They said that when the Americans bombed Syria all of them would be killed.
In early September, the United States backed away from the prospect of a military campaign, and Hamada was returned to the terrorism court in Damascus, where his case was finally heard. The judge noted that he had confessed to attacking checkpoints and killing soldiers. Hamada rolled up his pants and showed the judge the cigarette burns. He held up his wrists, revealing deep purple scars. He showed the black-and-blue welts on his torso. It was a familiar scene inside the courtroom. To each charge, the judge said, “Not guilty.”
He fled to Turkey, boarded a smuggler’s raft to Greece, and travelled more than seventeen hundred miles to the Netherlands, where his sister had moved before the war. He recalled the migration with a shrug, in a single sentence, as if it were nothing.
Hamada’s account of atrocities at Hospital 601 was later corroborated by approximately fifty-five thousand photographs, smuggled out of Syria by a military-police officer known by the name Caesar, an alias. Between Caesar’s photographs and the CIJA’s case, Stephen Rapp told me, “when the day of justice arrives, we’ll have much better evidence than we’ve had anywhere since Nuremberg.” Wiley and Engels believe that, should the case go to court, the CIJA has sufficient evidence to convict Assad and his associates on several charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, and other inhumane acts.
Last year, when Assad was asked about the Caesar photographs during an interview with Foreign Affairs, he said, “Who said this is done by the government, not by the rebels? Who said this is a Syrian victim, not someone else?” In 2011, the U.N. commission of inquiry alleged that a thirteen-year-old boy named Hamza al-Khateeb had been tortured to death in detention. In response, a Syrian investigation concluded that, shortly after the boy died, a “forensic photographer” took “six colored photos” of the corpse. “We attributed the number twenty-three to it.” The Syrians determined that the pictures showed “no beating marks, no traces of torture,” and that the boy had been killed by gunfire, “most probably by his fellow-terrorists.” The investigation also found that a doctor who had reported that the boy’s penis had been cut off “had misjudged the situation in an earlier examination.” Caesar’s collection contains six images of Hamza al-Khateeb’s body. His eyes are swollen shut, and his head is a deep purple, from being beaten. His penis is missing. In every picture, there is a bloodstained note card bearing the number twenty-three.
In the Netherlands, Hamada attends physical-therapy sessions to rehabilitate his scarred limbs. He studies Dutch and organizes anti-Assad protests in public squares, though attendance is sparse. He wonders about his nephews, his brother, his brother-in-law, and many missing friends. “Where are they?” he cried. “Are they alive? Are they dead?” His sister in Syria asks the military police for death certificates, to no avail. Every day is “misery,” Hamada said. “It’s misery. It’s misery. It’s death. It’s a life of death.” '