Cian Doherty reflects on the Caesar photo exhibition recently hosted by GOAL in Dublin.
“Before the uprising, the regime tortured prisoners to get information; now they were torturing to kill” – former Syrian prison detainee.
On Tuesday January 19th, I made my way along to the Caesar Exhibition hosted by GOAL in the RHA Gallery, Dublin. I had a rough idea of what to expect, but was not prepared for the stomach-churning nature of the images involved.
Hung around the gallery walls were pictures of detainees from the Syrian regime’s prisons and detention centres who had been tortured to death. They included emaciated corpses that recalled holocaust era footage; bodies with blanked out eye sockets where the eyeballs had been gouged out; pictures of figures both young and old, male and female, showing clear signs of torture, starvation and savage beating.
“The photographs have been cited by UN agencies as clear evidence of systematic human rights violations by the Assad regime”
The worst part was learning that these representative pictures had been deemed the most palatable for public display.
A well-spoken guide, Mouaz Moustade from the Syrian Emergency Task Force, told us the story of how the photographs made it out of Syria. ‘Caesar’ was the codename for a former Syrian military policeman whose job was to photograph the bodies of people that died in state custody in Damascus.
As the Assad regime’s brutality escalated from 2011 on, the role turned him into a documentarian of the state’s torture system. When he fled in 2013, he smuggled with him on flash drives over 55,000 pictures of approximately 11,000 victims tortured to death.
Again, it was scary to hear this represents only a fraction of the killings that took place inside the Syrian regime’s prisons.
Anyone could face a similar fate
Moustade estimated there were around 300,000 people currently incarcerated in Syrian prisons, possibly facing a similar fate. His words were made even more poignant when he revealed that members of his own family were among their number.
He also emphasised how anybody could be jailed and killed, Christian, Kurd or Muslim; all that was needed was any hint of opposition or disloyalty. To prove the point, he drew our attention to the dead body of a man with Bashar al-Assad’s face tattooed on his stomach.
Comparable cases and impunity
The only time I have been similarly affected by a photography exhibition was at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, related to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. However these horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge happened in a different era. The torture in Syrian prisons is happening right now, not far from the shores of Europe.
“I wonder then why this practice cannot be used for prosecuting the Syrian government in the International Criminal Court”
One thing the two have in common though, as well as with the German holocaust, is how the regimes documented their crimes. Each of the Caesar Exhibition photos contain cards held over the body inscribed with specific numbers detailing the death of the victim.
I wonder then why this practice cannot be used for prosecuting the Syrian government in the International Criminal Court (ICC). After all, the photographs have been cited by UN agencies as clear evidence of systematic human rights violations by the Assad regime.
It is saddening to find out from our guide that a UN Security Council referral is needed to bring a case to the ICC. In the UN, Russia always vetoes any move against its Syrian ally, giving Assad the confidence to continue acting with impunity.
Solidarity and awareness
Moustade realises the frustration of this scenario but also says a key resource for Syrians remains solidarity with their cause. With UN-brokered peace talks underway at the moment, we can hope they find some sort of lasting solution to the conflict.
But until that happens, it is important to keep awareness levels high of the plight of everyday Syrians, especially those imprisoned in this vicious system.
Find out more: Take an online tour of the exhibition.
Author: Cian Doherty
Cian is a Dubliner working for GOAL as a Donations Officer. He studied Arts in UCD and completed an MA in International Relations in DCU. Cian has worked overseas with UNAIDS in Malawi and has volunteered in Mexico and Mozambique.
Photo credit: GOAL