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Report Details Alleged 'Systematic' Killing By Syria's Assad

Syrian look up after an apparent airstrike by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad on Tuesday in the city of Aleppo.
Ammar Abdullah
Reuters /Landov
Syrian look up after an apparent airstrike by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad on Tuesday in the city of Aleppo.

This post was updated at 5:39 p.m. ET

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad conducted "systematic torture and killing" of those detained in the country's bloody civil war. That's according to a report by three former war crimes prosecutors who examined thousands of photographs of dead prisoners that they say were smuggled out by a Syrian defector. The revelation comes a day before Syrian peace talks are set to begin in Switzerland.

The report, first obtained by CNN and The Guardian, says the bodies in the photographs "showed signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing." (A warning to readers: The photographs in the report are of a graphic nature).

"These 11,000 human beings were starved, beaten, tortured in ways that are frankly not describable on this program," former war crimes prosecutor David Crane, part of the team that investigated the photographs, told NPR's All Things Considered. "And then they were killed."

The defector — codenamed "Caesar" — who allegedly smuggled the pictures out of Syria photographed the bodies when he worked for the Syrian military police, according to the report. It adds:

"Having carefully interviewed 'Caesar' and evaluated his evidence in light of the exhibits available to it, the inquiry team found him, for its part, to be a truthful and credible witness. He revealed no signs of being 'sensational'; nor did he seem partisan. Although he was a supporter of those who opposed the present regime, the inquiry team is satisfied that he gave an honest account of his experiences.

"If he wished to exaggerate his evidence it would have been very easy for him to say that he had actually witnessed executions. In fact, he made it quite plain that he never witnessed a single execution. There were many other reasons which drove the inquiry team to its conclusion that his evidence was reliable and could safely be acted upon in any subsequent judicial proceedings."

As NPR's Deborah Amos tells our Newscast unit, this is the first time evidence like this "comes from inside the regime." The report was commissioned by the London-based law firm Carter-Ruck, which was acting on behalf of Qatar, a major backer of Syria's anti-Assad rebels.

As with most accounts from Syria, it's virtually impossible to verify the authenticity of the claims.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the report suggested "widespread and apparently systematic violations," adding: "We need to get the Assad regime out of power."

Crane, the former war crimes prosecutor, told All Things Considered that the photographs could be used in a possible war crimes trial.

"This is incredible, important, specific evidence that I could get a conviction on beyond a reasonable doubt in a fair and open trial," he said.

The report's publication comes just ahead of the Geneva 2 peace talks, set to begin Wednesday, and underscores the difficulty of bringing together the various factions for negotiations.

Deborah told Morning Edition that hopes for the conference are low. One reason: Assad's role in any future Syrian government. The U.S. insists he must go. Russia continues to support him.

NPR's Scott Neuman reported Monday that the U.N. rescinded an invitation to Iran to take part in the talks after Syrian opposition groups said they'd boycott the discussions if Tehran got a seat at the table. Iran is a major ally of Assad, and the U.N. invitation had irked many, including the U.S., which said Iran didn't support the aim of the talks: to set up a transitional government in Syria. Iran said it wouldn't accept any preconditions to participation.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who along with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been instrumental in putting together the talks, criticized the canceled invitation, saying it diminished the prospects of the talks succeeding. Russia, too, is a major ally of Assad.

NPR's Michele Kelemen and Corey Flintoff have stories on Tuesday's Morning Edition outlining the differences in opinion and policy between the two countries.

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.