The Assad files
Published by The Mail on Sunday (3rd December, 2017)
The room looks harmless enough, with dull grey shelves and stacks of cardboard boxes packed to overflowing with maps of the Middle East and sheaves of documents filled with Arabic script. Yet the location of this repository in the centre of Europe is a closely guarded secret.
To reach the office you climb several flights of stairs in a building deliberately chosen to avoid the prying eyes of those desperate to destroy the evidence of unspeakable horrors recorded in meticulous files housed within its bare walls.
I promised not to reveal its whereabouts, yet the office feels like any other, filled with men and women tapping away on computers and chatting over coffee.
I am ushered towards a locked door which is opened so I can make my way inside and open one of the thousands of brown boxes that fill the room. The first contains military maps covered in fluorescent markings that detail troop movements, weapons instalments and a battle plan.
Beneath this are scores of documents filled with Arabic writing. Some have official-looking government stamps. Others are pockmarked with holes from bullets. There is a safe containing seized computers and some phones in padded bags.
Their contents offer clues to the most hideous tales of death and depravity, of barbaric torture, and hospitals turned into charnel houses, often written in the banal language of bureaucrats covering their backs.
In one document, a Syrian army officer tries to dodge blame for the death of a young man in his custody after beatings to his stomach and genitals. Another makes reference to a fridge that is ‘full of unidentified corpses that have disintegrated’.
For this innocuous room contains 800,000 pages of potential evidence to build a case that may lead to the most significant war crimes trial since Nuremberg, one that could match The Hague’s current International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and make last week’s suicide in its dock by a former Bosnian-Croat general seem like a bizarre footnote in history.
For the room I am standing in houses the case against Syrian president Bashar Assad and his genocidal cronies. Indeed, some of the documents I witness here are even signed by the dictator himself. Yet more papers could assist prosecutions against Islamic State leaders and are being used to help European governments vet returning jihadi recruits.
Each document, each map, each phone, each computer was sneaked out of Syria or Iraq at huge personal risk. At least one brave smuggler has been killed and others have been locked up as they sought to help expose murderous activities and systemic abuse by the chief perpetrators of Syria’s civil war.
This treasure trove was stashed away in homes and warehouses, sometimes even buried in fields, then ferried out in boxes, suitcases and lorries.
The aim is simple: to build a case to prove guilt for state atrocities. Yet there is a remarkable twist – this is the first such war crimes probe run by a private, non-profit body.
Although it is bankrolled by democratic governments – including our own – and has sometimes used diplomatic cover to transport documents, it has no official international mandate.
‘The symbolism is important,’ said Bill Wiley, the veteran war crimes investigator heading the bold project. ‘We want to prove there is not impunity for anyone. Assad is the worst criminal in the region and he should not be above the law.’
Last month former Bosnian-Serb commander Ratko Mladic – the ‘Butcher of Bosnia – was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was convicted of crimes against humanity more than two decades after orchestrating the Srebrenica massacre.
This marked the conclusion of the United Nations-backed International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. After 24 years of dogged work, the body secured 83 convictions, including major war criminals such as Slobodan Praljik, who drank poison last week in court as a judge rejected his appeal against a 20-year sentence.
Now attention turns to Syria as the conflict nears possible conclusion with Islamic State on the run and Assad’s regime, backed by Iran and Russia, gaining ground. Assad’s latest atrocity – described by Amnesty International as ‘war crimes on epic scale’ – is a savage bombardment of starving civilians, many of them women and children, in Ghouta.
At least 400,000 people have been killed across Syria, half the country’s population have been displaced, and huge numbers have gone missing, many of them held in detention centres infamous for extreme cruelty and torture.
Among the papers stored in this building is an arrest document for a man in Deir ez-Zor named Mazen Alhummada. Today this gaunt 40-year-old former oil worker lives in Holland. But he is haunted by his awful experiences after being grabbed by Assad’s security goons in March 2012 while in a cafe with two nephews.
For more than a year, Alhummada endured what can only be described as evil – first at a notorious air force base, then inside a hospital, alongside hundreds of other detainees stuffed into fetid hellholes. His nightmare included routine beatings, cigarettes stubbed out on his legs and being hung from his hands.
He falsely confessed in terror to carrying a gun after having his genitals squeezed in a plumbing clamp. In hospital he was attacked by nurses, saw battered corpses stacked in a toilet with eyes gouged out, and a soldier sever the spinal cord of a prisoner.
Four relatives are still missing, although he thinks he saw the body of one nephew among 53,000 images of corpses smuggled out by a military police photographer. His remaining family has disappeared after a recent regime attack on Deir ez-Zor. ‘The people who tortured so many Syrians are known,’ he told me. ‘My hope is these criminals will go to court one day.’
Wiley, a former Canadian army officer, set up the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) a few months after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011 to secure justice for such victims. His experiences include war crimes probes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, working in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the first investigator taken on by the International Criminal Court, and then drafting Saddam Hussein’s defence statement in Iraq.
His efforts there were always going to be doomed – the Iraqi despot was hanged in 2006 – but he wanted to underline the importance of a fair trial. ‘Saddam was very polite but I did not find him in touch with reality,’ said Wiley.
After being asked to help train Syrian human rights activists with British cash, Wiley made a counter-proposal: why not teach a specialist team to scoop up data for war crime cases? The Foreign Office backed him with £800,000.
Since then his group, subsequently supported by the EU and several Western nations, has had courageous people pursuing the paper trail of war crimes behind shifting battle lines in Syria and later in Iraq.
It is risky work. Investigators have followed moderate rebels on attacks of military bases and buildings to grab papers. One courier was wounded fleeing with a case full of documents, another was killed in an ambush.
A big cache of documents that was hidden in a remote area was mistakenly burned by an elderly woman as winter fuel. Many more remain stockpiled in secret stashes.
Adel, a former lawyer from southern Syria, has carried out seven major smuggling missions, including one tense operation to remove 260 lb of documents from under the noses of IS in Deir ez-Zor.
Pretending he was helping a family move home, he obtained a 48-hour pass to transport household possessions in a lorry. Then he collected papers from three hiding places before driving to the border through scores of checkpoints.
‘You are always scared but I do this for my country,’ he said. ‘Without justice there can be no peace and security again in the future.’
These papers form the basis for a painstaking task: to compile a case proving the slaughter and torture follows orders from the top. ‘It’s like investigating organised crime,’ said Wiley. ‘We have to ask if Assad and his senior commanders are figureheads or actively controlling what people do and setting out terms of engagement. This is the key, just as it was at Nuremberg.
‘We identify the state structures. Then we link these structures to the criminality, working out who really has the control on it. You only identify suspects at the end.’
So an April 2011 letter signed by Assad as ‘commander-in-chief’ proves the dictator has ‘effective control’, even if only promising extra allowances for security forces ‘on state of alert’.
Even a near-comical pre-war note from Syria’s National Security Bureau is crucial, despite simply urging ‘enthusiastic comrades’ to avoid slogans and banners ‘with phrases that exceed the common social praise’ for Assad since they attract dissent.
Key documents include one from August 2011 in which the Central Crisis Management Cell – set up by Assad after the uprising – outlines its plan to crush demonstrations sweeping the country.
The note shows the group, whose minutes were approved personally by Assad, demanding ‘daily’ raids against those organising, financing and publicising the protests, even people speaking to foreign media and international bodies.
Insiders have confirmed such minutes would be taken to Assad, annotated by the Syrian president, then returned to the crisis committee for instant implementation.
The result was a reign of terror that inflamed conflict and fuelled support for extremists, with some of the worst abuses taking place, incredibly, in hospitals that became killing hubs as exposed by defectors and human rights groups.
One month later the public attorney in Deir ez-Zor sent notes complaining that he was being hounded daily by families of arrested ‘sons, fathers and brothers’ while ‘the hospital refrigerator is full of unidentified corpses that have disintegrated’.
A chilling series of letters from Idlib in June 2012 exposes how a military judge signed off the death of a man from ‘sudden heart attack’ – a euphemism used often with murdered detainees.
But the next day a military police officer pointed out the man died due to being beaten at a checkpoint. Doctors confirmed the real cause of death: ‘nervous system failure due to pain caused by bruises all over the body – more specifically, the testicles and the stomach’.
Nemer, a Syrian surgeon who fled after witnessing the sickening torture inside hospital and being forced to write false death certificates, told me he was still traumatised by what he had seen.
‘We were used by intelligence to bury evidence of torture,’ he said. ‘Every day I wonder on the meaning of justice. These people were experts at manipulating evidence.’
Nemer’s father was among those killed by security forces after a savage beating despite suffering from cancer. ‘It is my dream to see these people in court. All that can give us peace is to see Assad and the people supervising torture in jail.’
Human rights experts told me they were impressed by CIJA’s efforts in such tough conditions. ‘They have gathered high-quality material,’ said lawyer and author Philippe Sands, who recently met the team and saw some of their work.
‘This is important not only for any legal proceedings but also for possible efforts at seeking truth and reconciliation in the longer term.’
Three months ago the United Nations backed British moves to investigate IS for war crimes and genocide. Thousands of jihadis are being held in Iraq while CIJA is providing evidence to help Western governments vet returning foreign fighters.
Wiley hopes some of the fanatics will go on trial in Europe next year for war crimes. I saw one impressive 458-page report investigating IS atrocities in Sinjar, Iraq, in August 2014, when they killed many Yazidi men and kidnapped thousands of woman as sex slaves.
But what hope of justice for Assad as he tightens the noose on his country, aided by a Russian president protecting him from UN investigations into use of chemical weapons and insisting the Syrian hardman stays in power in any peace settlement?
‘Assad is the biggest criminal in the region and could become a political liability, as we have seen in other similar situations,’ said Wiley. ‘I don’t know if it will take two years, five years or ten years but I do believe that one day he will face justice.’