The Caesar Photos and Impunity in Syria

Western media are reporting headline claims that “new evidence supports claims about Syrian state detention deaths”, saying that “a leading rights group has released new evidence that up to 7,000 Syrians who died in state detention centres were tortured, mistreated, or executed”, noting that this information is a moral wake-up call and demanding that officials being held to account should be “central to peace efforts.”

However, as is usually so, not everything is quite as it seems.  So let’s take a look at the facts.

First the timing.

As has been commonplace the timing of the reports like these have almost always coincided with important diplomatic meetings or just after important UN resolutions are passed.

For example, beginning in mid-March claims began to pour in that Assad had been using chlorine bombs against his opponents.  Media reports would cite the fact that only 2 months later the government had already been accused of using chlorine 35 times.  What they failed to mention however was that no claims were made for an entire 7 months before this.  So what changed after these seven months?

Well, a UN resolution was passed condemning the use of chlorine, that’s what.

The governments alleged chlorine campaign “began just over a week after the UN security council passed a resolution under chapter 7 of the UN charter condemning its use,” the Guardian would report. For more than half of a year no claims are made and then a week after a UN resolution is passed, all of a sudden a total of 35 are made in just under 2 months.

If Assad was really using chlorine, why would he wait a full 7 months only to use it at the exact time that it would prove to be the most disastrous for him?

This, coupled with the fact that former OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) inspectors admit that there was insufficient evidence to prove the use of chlorine, let alone assign blame for who did it.

And further troubling still is that the claims came from the “White Helmets” “civil defense group”, who have been notorious for producing false claims against the Syrian government.  In actuality the White Helmets are part of a slick propaganda campaign aimed at mobilizing support for foreign intervention and calling for a “no-fly zone” to oust the president.  They have financial links to Western-backed NGOs who relentlessly work towards furthering the US agenda in the region, and are themselves embedded with al-Qaeda and ISIS.  Their primary function is to demonize the Syrian government while acting as al-Qaeda’s clean-up crew, both literally and in terms of propaganda, as one video shows them waiting to clean up dead bodies moments after al-Qaeda commits summary executions against unarmed civilians.  They have produced numerous fake videos, fake photos, and fake narratives in order to manipulate public opinion towards their bias. ((For more on this, see Vanessa Beeley’s great reports, “‘White Helmets’: New Breed of Mercenaries and Propagandists, Disguised as ‘Humanitarians’ in Syria”, 21st Century Wire, Pt. 1, Pt. 2, and overview with interview. ))

Needless to say, their words aren’t credible.

In terms of the the Caesar photos, they too are published days before an important Syrian peace conference between the US and Russia, further raising questions as to whether the timing has anything to do with helping Syrian detainees or everything to do with political impact.

As noted by Human Rights Investigations, a previous report of the photos was done by Carter-Ruck and Co. Solicitors of London and published through CNN and the Guardian in January of 2014.  The Carter-Ruck report claims that the 55,000 images available show 11,000 dead detainees.  However, according to the recent HRW report, only 28,707 of the photos are ones that they have “understood to have died in government custody” while the remaining 24,568 are of dead soldiers killed in battle.  That is, half of the alleged “torture victims” are actually dead soldiers.

Of the remaining half (6,786), HRW maintains that they “understand” the photos are of dead detainees, this is where the media is getting the “7,000” figure from, yet they themselves admit later on that they were only “able to verify 27 cases of detainees whose family members’ statements regarding their arrest and physical characteristics matched the photographic evidence.”

So, in other words, half of the original batch of photos aren’t torture victims, while of the other half only 27 can be verified by HRW.

There is also reason to doubt the reliability of these 27 cases.

Previous reports of the photos also coincided with important diplomatic events like the 2014 Geneva II conferences.  However, at that time, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay admitted that the reports were unverified: “the report… if verified, is truly horrifying.”  While it was admitted by outlets like Reuters that they were unable “to determine the authenticity of Caesar’s photographs or to contact Caesar” while Amnesty International notes that they too “cannot authenticate the images.”

One wonders what happened during this time that allowed HRW to do what these others could not just a year prior.

Leaving that aside however, let’s say that they are true, that they do prove that the Syrian government tortured 27 individuals, and that holding the officials “to account should be central to any peace efforts.”

It follows then that the major offenders should be held to account.  Namely the United States.

Of the top 10 recipients of US foreign aid programs in 2014, all of them practice torture while at least half of them are reportedly doing so on a massive scale, according to leading human rights organizations.

For example, according to the UN torture in Afghanistan’s prisons continues to be widespread, while according to Human Rights Watch in Kenya police “tortured, raped, and otherwise abused and arbitrarily detained at least 1,000 refugees between mid-November 2012 and late January 2013.”

The worst abuses of torture in government detention centers however were in Nigeria, which received $693 million of US taxpayer money.  There, according to Amnesty, nearly 1,000 people died in military custody in only the first 6 months of 2013.  This means that “Nigeria’s military has killed more civilians than (Boko Haram) militants did” within the same timeframe.  Recently, the Nigerian army, instead of fighting Boko Haram has massacred upwards of 1,000 Muslims belonging to a peaceful movement opposed to extremism.

In terms of Israel, by far the leading recipient with $3.1 billion, the Public Committee against Torture in Israel accused the government of torturing and sexually assaulting Palestinian children suspected of minor crimes, while also keeping detainees in cages outside during winter.  “The majority of Palestinian child detainees are charged with throwing stones, and 74 per cent experience physical violence during arrest, transfer or interrogation.”

Not to mention our own widely publicized torture program.

According to the official narrative, the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programs began under Bush after 9/11 and were considered “rogue elements” and “aberrations” to normal CIA practice, they were approved at the highest levels of government, but were eventually ended under Obama in 2009.

Yet as leading international security scholar Dr. Nafeez Ahmed found in a recent and thorough investigation “Obama did not ban torture in 2009, and has not rescinded it now. He instead rehabilitated torture with a carefully crafted Executive Order that has received little scrutiny.”

It demanded interrogation techniques be brought in line with the US Army Field Manual, which is in compliance with the Geneva Convention.  However, the manual was revised in 2006 to include 19 forms of interrogation and the practice of extraordinary rendition.  “A new UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) review of the manual shows that a wide-range of torture techniques continue to be deployed by the US government,” Ahmed notes, “including isolation, sensory deprivation, stress positions, chemically-induced psychosis, adjustments of environmental and dietary rules, among others.”

In his book Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation the highly renowned Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Alfred McCoy shows that from the 1950s onward the CIA spent billions “improving” interrogation techniques.

At the start, the emphasis was on electroshock, hypnosis, psychosurgery, and drugs, including the infamous use of LSD on unsuspecting soldiers, yet they proved ineffective.  It was later found that sensory disorientation and “self-inflicted pain”, such as forcing a subject to stand for many hours with arms outstretched, were far more effective means of breaking individuals; the exact torture techniques it has been shown the US still employs to this day. (( Alfred McCoy, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation.))

The CIA found that by using only the deprivation of the senses, a state akin to psychosis can be induced in just 48 hours.

They found that the KGB’s most devastating torture technique of all was not crude physical beatings, but simply forcing victims to stand for days on end.  “The legs swelled, the skin erupted spreading legions, the kidneys shut down, and hallucinations began” explains McCoy, “all incredibly painful.”

Refined through decades of practice, “the CIA’s use of sensory deprivation relies on seemingly banal procedures: heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence, feast and famine,” yet this combines to form “a systematic attack on the sensory pathways of the human mind” for devastating effect.

These are not “aberrations”, but instead the fruition of over half a century’s work in the experimentation of the science of cracking the code of the human mind, of the perfection of psychological torture into its most sophisticated forms.

“With the election and re-election of President Barak Obama, the problem of torture has not, as many of us have once hoped, simply disappeared, wiped away by sweeping executive orders,” McCoy explains, “Instead it is now well into a particularly sordid second phase, called impunity.”

Simply put, impunity is the political process of legalizing illegal acts.

“In this case, torture.” ((Alfred McCoy giving a lecture on his book “Torture and Impunity” at Madison’s Overture Center.))

Instead of ending, US torture “continues to be deployed by the US government” in its most destructive forms.

It has been re-packaged and rehabilitated, codifying into law, and vanished from the general public consciousness.

Furthermore, not only does the US engage in torture on a mass scale, it and its allies as well “outsource” their torture to various regimes, utilizing their intelligence and security services to do their dirty work for them.

It was recently reported by numerous Libyan dissidents that the UK government had entangled itself in a deep and sordid relationship with Muammar Gaddafi that amounted to “a criminal conspiracy”, as heard before the UK high court.

A conspiracy where the UK had become “enmeshed in illegality” and involved in “rendition, unlawful detention and torture.”

The victims claim that British intelligence routinely blackmailed them, threatened their families with unlawful imprisonment and abuse if they did not cooperate.  Information was extracted through torture in prisons in Tripoli and fed into the British court systems as secret evidence that could not be challenged.

Yet this merely represents a wider trend whereby Western governments commit horrendous crimes in collusion with foreign states, and then use those same acts as justification for aggression against them.

The United States attempted to justify the invasion of Iraq on non-existent WMD’s after it had supplied the same weapons to the country decades prior to wage war on Iran.

As well it was Gaddafi’s alleged brutality and use of torture that was invoked to justify the devastating attack on Libya that has left the country in shambles and overrun with suffering and terrorism.

And so too with Syria.

Not only is the United States by degrees of magnitude more culpable for the crime of torture, it also was intimately involved in offshoring its crimes to Syrian jails.

A key participant in the CIA’s covert rendition program, Syria was one of the “most common destinations for rendered subjects.”

So while torture in Syria is all too real, what is commonly left out is three little words: “with our support.”

First we utilize, exploit, and propagate the atrocities, and then proceed to bask in our own moral righteousness as we denounce others for the crimes that we helped commit, utilizing them to justify further atrocities and aggressions for shortsighted geopolitical aims.

If “officials being held to account” are really “central to any peace effort” in regards to torture, we know exactly where to find them: right here at home in Washington and London.

Steven Chovanec is an independent geopolitical analyst and writer based in Chicago, IL. He is a student of International Studies and Sociology at Roosevelt University and conducts independent, open-source research into geopolitics and social issues. This article originally appeared at his blog, Reports from Underground. Find him on Twitter @stevechovanec. Read other articles by Steven.