The Assad Files: Capturing the top-secret documents that tie the Syrian regime to mass torture and k
Some half a million people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. An additional five million have fled, emptying the country. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE MCQUADE
The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.
He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. 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 documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.
Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.
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.”
The case is the first international war-crimes investigation completed by an independent agency like the CIJA, funded by governments but without a court mandate. The organization’s founder, Bill Wiley, a Canadian war-crimes investigator who has worked on several high-profile international tribunals, had grown frustrated with the geopolitical red tape that often shapes the pursuit of justice. Because the process of collecting evidence and organizing it into cases is purely operational, he reasoned that it could be done before the political will exists to prosecute the case.
Only the U.N. Security Council can refer the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court; in May, 2014, Russia and China blocked a draft resolution that would have granted the court jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, Wiley told me, the commission has also identified a number of “quite serious perpetrators, drawn from the security-intelligence services,” who have entered Europe. “The CIJA is very much committed to assisting domestic authorities with prosecutions.”
Counting Syria’s dead has become nearly impossible—the U.N. stopped trying more than two years ago—but groups monitoring the conflict have estimated the number to be almost half a million, with the pace of killing accelerating each year. The war has emptied out the country, with some five million Syrians escaping to neighboring countries and to Europe, straining the capacities of even those countries which are willing to provide asylum and humanitarian aid. The chaos has also played a fundamental role in the rise of ISIS, the bloodiest of the jihadi groups that have used Syria as a staging ground to expand the reach of terrorism.
Last fall, Wiley invited me to examine the commission’s case at its headquarters, on the condition that I not reveal the office’s location, the governments assisting with document extraction, or, with few exceptions, the names of his staff.
In December, 2010, a twenty-six-year-old fruit seller in rural Tunisia, fed up with a life of harassment and extortion by venal government officials, doused himself in paint thinner, struck a match, and unwittingly ignited the Arab Spring. Hundreds of thousands of citizens in the Middle East and in North Africa, sharing his rage and despair, rose up against an assortment of autocrats and kings. They demanded democratic reforms, economic opportunities, and an end to corruption. In late January, 2011, Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal, “What you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease.” Syria remained stable, a fact that Assad attributed to his attention to the “beliefs of the people.” He added, “This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”
In fact, Assad’s confidence was likely rooted in the proficiency of Syria’s security-intelligence apparatus, which had kept his family in power since 1971. Other autocrats in the region placed similar trust in their own security forces. Then Egypt’s dictatorship collapsed, and the U.N. Security Council voted to refer the situation in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi had ruled for forty-two years, to the International Criminal Court. In March, NATO forces launched a bombing campaign in Libya. In Syria, people began calling for concessions by the government—timidly, at first. The country had spent forty-eight years under martial law, and the notion of public demonstration was unfamiliar. The protests were met with tear gas and bullets, but were soon attracting tens of thousands of people.
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.
Every night, the Crisis Cell met in a drab office on the first floor of the Baath Party Regional Command, in central Damascus, and discussed strategies for crushing dissent. This required detailed information about each protest, so the cell requested reports from security committees and intelligence agents in the most rebellious provinces. 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. Barakat, who had recently finished a master’s degree in international relations, was working for the education ministry. At his interview, in April, a high-level official named Salaheddine al-Naimi examined his résumé and asked whether he could use a computer. Next, Naimi asked how he would resolve the developing crisis. Barakat replied that, in order to avoid an armed response, the government should make some concessions and enact moderate reforms.
Barakat was surprised to be hired. In college, he had been questioned by military-intelligence agents about suspicions that he and his friends were involved in anti-government political activities. 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. On most days, more than a hundred and fifty pages arrived at Barakat’s desk, cataloguing the minutiae of perceived threats to Assad’s rule—graffiti, Facebook posts, protests—and, eventually, actual threats, like the existence of armed groups. Barakat read everything and drafted summaries, which Naimi delivered to the members of the Crisis Cell to guide each meeting.
Barakat was never allowed into the meeting room, but he saw the members walk in, and Naimi kept detailed minutes on Baath Party letterhead. Occasional guests of the group included high-ranking Baathist officials, Syria’s Vice-President, and Assad’s younger brother, Maher, a short-tempered military commander, whom the European Union identified in a sanctions list as the “principal overseer of violence against demonstrators.”
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. Barakat photographed the memos in the bathroom, and sent the pictures to contacts in the Syrian opposition, who forwarded them to Arabic news organizations. His plan was to steal as much information as possible and then leave the country. But each leak heightened suspicion within the office, increasing the chances that, sooner or later, the regime would discover that he was the mole.
One day in October, 2011, while Bill Wiley was visiting a Libyan exile in Niger, he received a phone call from a friend, relaying a request from the British government: as the crisis in Syria spiralled into civil war, it was looking for someone to train activists to document human-rights violations. Wiley told the caller that plenty of groups were already cataloguing the abuses. But he had a counter-proposal: he could train Syrians to collect the type of evidence that would better serve a prosecution, tracing criminal culpability up as high as it went. It was a novel approach—instead of raising awareness of crimes, he intended to pin them on state actors, whether or not the international community sanctioned the investigation. The British government approved of the idea.
Wiley’s career had intersected with a resurgence of the field of international criminal law; since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, there had been no major international investigations until the atrocities in the Balkans, in the nineteen-nineties, led to the Yugoslavia tribunal. Wiley, who had completed a Ph.D. in international criminal law at York University while serving in the Canadian Army—he wrote his dissertation on war crimes and the evolution of international humanitarian law—became an analyst at the tribunal. In 2002, he travelled to Kigali to investigate war crimes in Rwanda, and the following year he moved to the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was the first investigator retained by the International Criminal Court.
Wiley, who considers himself “a field guy, not an office guy,” is tall, with reddish-blond hair, and handles the considerable stress of his profession with Cuban cigarillos, gallows humor, and exercise. (At the age of fifty-two, he bench-presses more than three hundred and fifty pounds.) While working for the I.C.C., he came to believe that the international court system was often afflicted by upper-management “incompetence.” Since its launch, in 2002, the I.C.C. has opened nine investigations, spent more than a billion dollars, and secured convictions against three men: two warlords and a former politician, all from Congo. After two years, Wiley became disillusioned, and he applied to become a human-rights monitor for the United Nations, in Iraq.
On October 19, 2005, Wiley sat in a hangar at a military base in Amman, Jordan, awaiting transport to Baghdad. A television showed Saddam Hussein in a heated exchange with a judge, insisting that he was still the President of Iraq. It was the former dictator’s first day on trial. “I paid no attention to it whatsoever,” Wiley recalled. The multinational coalition had established a special tribunal, staffed by Iraqi judges and prosecutors, to hold legal proceedings in accordance with international standards. But the Iraqi government replaced judges who seemed sympathetic to the defense, and, days after Saddam’s lawyers appeared in news broadcasts, two of them were assassinated.
Chris Engels and Bill Wiley inside the evidence room of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability.PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN TAUB
In early 2006, the coalition hired Wiley to advise Saddam’s lawyers, whose principal argument was that the court itself was illegal. They regularly boycotted proceedings, leaving Iraq and watching the hearings on television. To Wiley, the trial was “not about Saddam, per se,” but “about sending a signal to a conflict-affected society that, from here on out, this nation will be governed on the basis of the rule of law.” He urged the lawyers to come back to Baghdad and defend their client.
Eventually, Saddam’s defense team returned to court, but shortly before the hearings concluded a third lawyer was kidnapped; his bullet-riddled corpse was found the next day. The remaining members of the team blamed the Iraqi government and did not show up for the closing arguments. Wiley drafted Saddam’s defense, and a court-appointed Iraqi lawyer read it out in court. Saddam protested, declaring, “A Canadian wrote this closing argument. I know he’s a spy.” It was clear that the court would convict Saddam, but Wiley argued that his life should be spared. Instead, seven weeks later, at a military base called Camp Justice, Saddam was hanged while Shiite guards taunted him. His body was delivered to the Prime Minister’s residence for display at a party.
Wiley stayed in Baghdad for another two years, filing defense motions for former members of Saddam’s regime. An American justice official told me that Wiley’s efforts to bring due process to the tribunal were “practically heroic.” When Wiley left Iraq, in 2008, he launched a private consultancy, called Tsamota, which assists Western governments and U.N. agencies in preventing war crimes in troubled countries by training police, as well as members of the military, security, and intelligence services, to act in accordance with international law.
In November, 2011, Wiley travelled to Istanbul with two Tsamota colleagues to train Syrians to collect evidence that would be useful in war-crimes prosecutions. A security consultant whom he knew had selected some young Syrian activists and lawyers, who were invited to recruit trusted friends. Wiley was impressed by their bravery, but he thought that their methods were ineffective. “Their tendency, in those days, was to run around with cameras, video cameras, smartphones, and photograph regime attacks in urban areas, and then put this stuff on YouTube,” he told me. “One of the first things we did was explain to them that, as criminal evidence, it’s basically useless” without corroboration. “You’re running tremendous risks—and, indeed, a lot of young people were getting killed and wounded generating video or visual images—really to no end.” Filming an air strike on a hospital, for example, offers no evidence that the attack was planned by the kinds of high-level officials who draw the interest of the international justice system. “One needs to establish their individual criminal culpability,” Wiley said.
Thousands of Syrian government troops had defected by then, joining ragtag brigades of local farmers, students, and hairdressers. Some fighters made their own explosives and launched grenades from giant slingshots. The Syrian Army bombarded what little territory these rebels controlled. Several of the activists attending the training session in Istanbul lived in besieged areas; Wiley and his colleagues taught them to photograph and measure artillery craters, assess angles of impact, collect shell fragments, identify the types of weapon used, and calculate launching points. But, he said, “the big thing we wanted them to focus on was documentation generated by the regime,” which he called “the king or queen of evidence in international criminal proceedings.”
After the first few training sessions, Wiley invited Stephen Rapp, at that time the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, to speak to the Syrians, who now numbered in the dozens. The two men had met a decade earlier, while working for the Rwanda tribunal. Over drinks in Istanbul, Wiley and Rapp discussed the prospect of creating a hub to house captured documents that could one day be used in trials. The United Nations had set up a commission of inquiry to investigate human-rights abuses in Syria, but its mandate didn’t extend to prosecutions, and, rather than dealing with documents, the U.N. relied mostly on witness interviews conducted in refugee camps and by Skype. “Almost all the evidence that they’re collecting won’t be available for prosecution,” Rapp told me, because the U.N. promised witnesses indefinite confidentiality, and trials are public.
When the activists and the lawyers—now investigators—returned to Syria, Wiley drafted a plan to create the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, and drew up a budget. Although Britain continued its support, finding other donors proved challenging. Western governments allot hundreds of millions of dollars to human-rights projects each year, but Wiley told me that their typical response to his requests for funding was “What you’re proposing to do is something that governments do, or the United Nations does, and the International Criminal Court does.” Eventually, with Rapp’s backing, the CIJA secured three million euros from the European Union. After that, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Canada also pledged consistent funding.
CAPTURING THE DOCUMENTS
The war was going poorly for Assad. In 2012, the number of high-level defections from the military and from civilian ministries rose dramatically. The defectors joined the Free Syrian Army, a loose organization of rebel groups. They hoped to transform Syria into a democracy, but jihadis started appearing on the battlefields, too. Generally, they proved to be more capable in combat than the Free Syrian Army. Various insurgents captured key crossing points into Turkey, and pushed government troops out of much of northern Syria, including parts of Idlib and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
By that February, the head of the Central Crisis Management Cell had questioned Barakat about the leaks. Another employee of the Crisis Cell told Barakat that his secretary was spying on him. Barakat decided to escape the country, but not before securing the minutes of the meetings, which were stored in the members’ offices. He also planned to steal correspondence between the Crisis Cell and the Presidential office, the Prime Minister, and the minister of the interior. On a day off, Barakat ransacked the offices, taking as many documents as he could, before driving some two hundred and fifty miles north from Damascus, to the Turkish border.
Syrian troops controlled the crossing point. But, with more than a thousand pages taped to his body, Barakat managed to slip through and check into a hotel under a false name before anyone in Damascus realized that he was gone. The next month, once his mother had safely left Syria, Barakat went public. He told Al Jazeera that he wanted the documents to go to the International Criminal Court.
Shortly after Barakat fled, the Crisis Cell moved its meetings from the Baath Party Regional Command to the heavily guarded premises of the National Security Bureau. In July, amid rumors of an impending coup, a blast inside the meeting room killed the chairman of the Crisis Cell; the head of the National Security Bureau; the minister of defense; and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who had recently taken over as the deputy minister of defense. (At least two rebel factions claimed credit for the attack, but they offered wildly inconsistent accounts of the logistics behind it.) The next day, a headline in the Times read, “WASHINGTON BEGINS TO PLAN FOR COLLAPSE OF SYRIAN GOVERNMENT.” Then Assad’s Prime Minister defected to the opposition. So did the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Even the top general responsible for preventing defections accused the military of “carrying out massacres against our innocent civilian population,” and announced, “I am joining the people’s revolution.”
The commission’s Syrian investigators forged alliances with key Free Syrian Army brigades as they gained territory. The rebels initially “had no interest in the documentation,” Wiley said. “They would go in, capture a regime facility. The smartphones would come out. There would be great joy and shouting and firing in the air. They would loot the place, looking for weapons and ammunition, because that’s what they needed. And then they would set the place on fire.” All potential evidence would be destroyed.
Wiley says that the commission told the rebels, “Take the documents first, and set them aside until they can be moved out of the country. And make a note—a very simple note—of where the documents were acquired and on what date. Box them up. Seal the boxes to the best of your ability with Saran wrap, or something like that—whatever’s at hand. And then, as those materials move, chart that movement. But don’t tamper with or rifle through the materials,” because in court a defense lawyer could argue that exculpatory evidence had been discarded.
Often, Syrian investigators accompanied moderate rebel groups as they attacked security-intelligence buildings, but government forces attempted to destroy any files that they couldn’t bring with them. In the days after a retreat, “there would be relentless shelling” at key sites, the CIJA’s chief investigator, a Syrian, told me. Water pipes would explode, destroying hundreds of thousands of pages before he and his colleagues could enter. Sometimes armed groups would call them to come and collect the files after a firefight ended. “Chain of custody is important, but it’s not a deal breaker,” Wiley said. “It’s not worth getting—Well, people have been killed and wounded moving this stuff.”
The first casualty was a courier, shot and wounded in 2012 as he ran toward a smuggling route out of Syria with a suitcase full of documents. Since then, two others have been injured during extractions, and one—the brother of the commission’s deputy chief investigator—was killed in an ambush by Syrian troops. Also in 2012, a courier and his wife came to an unexpected checkpoint outside Aleppo. It was manned by fighters belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadi group that later revealed its affiliation with Al Qaeda. The militants discovered the courier’s documents in the back of his car. They let his wife go, but took him into custody. “They were threatening to put him on trial and execute him as a regime spy,” Wiley told me. “We worked out a deal where he was convicted of something by the Sharia court and the fine was five thousand dollars. So we paid the fine.”
Several CIJA investigators have been kidnapped by jihadi groups, but all of them are free today. Radical Islamists pose as great a threat to their work as the regime does. These groups regard Western affiliations, as well as the often unfamiliar concept of international justice, with deep suspicion. And yet, in the pursuit of documents, many investigators made their mission known to rebel commanders with murky connections. “Our people are extremely well trained on what to do if they’re captured,” Wiley told me. “The equipment they have is encrypted and sufficiently sophisticated that anyone going through it would not find any evidence of the work they’re doing.” Only one investigator, a Syrian woman, who was captured more than two years ago, is currently detained by the Syrian regime.
Moving documents to the international borders is by far the most dangerous step in the CIJA’s operation. Paper is heavy and incriminating for the carrier; on the other hand, photographs, while more portable, can be difficult to authenticate in court. Bundles of up to fifty pounds typically arrive “in a dizzying array of crappy suitcases” smuggled across borders, Wiley told me, while large loads demand more intricate planning. “Think in terms of a box of paper that sits next to the photocopier,” he explained. “That box has five bricks, each with five hundred pages in it,” weighing a total of about twenty pounds. “And that’s only twenty-five hundred pages. We’ve extracted from Syria approximately six hundred thousand pages”—several tons. “So you need vehicles. Those vehicles need to get through checkpoints. You need to do reconnaissance. You need to know what kind of checkpoints you’re going to run into.” The commission pays rebel groups and couriers for logistical support. “We burn enormous sums of money moving this stuff,” he said.
Large extractions often depend on friendly countries to negotiate openings in otherwise sealed borders, so captured documents can remain hidden for months. On one occasion, several thousand pages of evidence were left with an old woman in a remote farmhouse in southern Syria, but the investigator didn’t explain the significance of the files. When winter came, Wiley said, “in fairness, she was cold, so she burned the whole lot of it as fuel.” The commission’s chief investigator told me that in exceptionally hostile areas he and his colleagues hide boxes in caves or bury them in the ground, log the location, and hope to retrieve them months or years from now—whenever the killing stops. Wiley said, “We have enormous quantities of material still in Syria that we’re not moving,” because it’s too dangerous. “Probably up to half a million pages.”
As the Syrians collected documents, Wiley hired military and political analysts, investigators, translators, and lawyers in Europe. By 2015, theCIJA’s budget had grown to eight million dollars a year, and its staff to around a hundred and fifty, including employees at the headquarters and at a video-analysis office elsewhere in Europe, in addition to the investigators in the Middle East. The CIJA employs about as many investigators as the International Criminal Court has working on all its cases combined.
Many of the documents have come from security-intelligence facilities far from the capital. These pages often refer to decisions made by the Central Crisis Management Cell, but to complete the chain of command the commission needed notes from those meetings. Barakat, who now lives in Istanbul, told me that in 2014 Chris Engels and an analyst visited him to examine his documents from the Crisis Cell. (The CIJA, which doesn’t publicly identify witnesses, refused to acknowledge this.) “They spent three days here, asking me in very great detail about the work I did, details about how the meetings would go,” he said. They also photographed the smuggled papers, and Barakat promised them that he’d supply the originals if the case went to trial.
As Barakat and I spoke through a video feed, he lifted up a heap of files, which are usually kept in a secure facility. “These are the meeting minutes for the Central Crisis Management Cell,” he said. He pulled out a page and pointed to the embossed emblem at the top. “As you can see—that little gold hawk? These are the original documents, and they’re signed in green.” The commission began sifting through Barakat’s files, analyzing connections between the Crisis Cell’s decisions and the criminal behavior of security agents in distant provinces.
The task of tracking down former regime agents who were willing to explain their roles in the system was simplified by the fact that so many had defected from the government. Analysts for the CIJA found wealthy defectors in the Gulf states, Turkey, and Europe. They also took witness statements in southern Turkey, in a heavily guarded refugee camp called Apaydın, which is wholly populated by former regime officers and their families. (None of them are listed as suspects in the case, which focusses on higher-level officials.)
Wiley said of the witnesses, “If I could use a rather cold metaphor—they’re a dime a dozen.” The CIJA preferred to interview victims who remained in Syria and had never spoken to reporters, human-rights groups, or the U.N. commission of inquiry. (A defense lawyer could suggest that, inside crowded refugee camps, testimonies might unfairly converge on a damning narrative.) So the CIJA’s Syrian investigators interviewed roughly two hundred and fifty victims across several provinces, to secure “pattern evidence” showing that crimes had been perpetrated in a systematic manner, in accordance with evidence in the documents. The goal was to draw strong links, through regime documents and testimony by witnesses and victims, between Syrian government policies and their effects on individuals.
One afternoon this winter, in a hotel room near Amsterdam, I met a gaunt thirty-eight-year-old Syrian activist named Mazen al-Hamada. The story of Hamada, who is not a CIJA witness—those people’s identities will remain secret unless they are called to testify—offers an opportunity to trace the specific effects of the Syrian regime’s policies on the citizens that it was trying desperately to subdue.
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. In 2011, the head of the National Security Bureau wrote a secret memo to the chairman of the Crisis Cell, attributing the scarcity of patriotism in Deir Ezzor to “the corrupt judicial system, long delays in adjudicating lawsuits, nepotism, and the resort to bribery to restore rights.”
The security-intelligence agencies in the district were competent, and loyal to Assad. Beginning with the earliest hints of unrest, in February, 2011, the head of Deir Ezzor’s military-intelligence branch, Brigadier General Jameh Jameh, sent instructions to all of his subordinates to “prepare cameras . . . in order to film the participants and instigators so they can be identified and held accountable in the future.” (CIJA investigators later retrieved this order, among many others related to the crackdown, from the military-intelligence headquarters in Deir Ezzor, after it was abandoned.)
Deir Ezzor’s security agents carried out even the most trivial orders from their superiors. On February 4th, the head of the National Security Bureau, in Damascus, signed a directive “to investigate, search for, and arrest” whoever had written “Down with Bashar” on a ten-inch water pipe along a remote stretch of highway near Deir Ezzor. The head of political security for the province spent a month investigating the incident, then replied, “We did not have any information about the perpetrators.”
On March 18th, there was a soccer match in Deir Ezzor between the home team, Al Foutoua, and Tishreen, from Latakia, the team Assad favored. Hamada lived next to the stadium, and could hear the noise from the spectators. “People in the crowd started chanting for reforms, against the regime,” he recalled. Assad’s team won. The crowd was upset, but Hamada just laughed. He figured that the match was fixed. “As soon as the referee blew the whistle to stop the game, everybody came out to the streets,” he said. It was the first substantial protest in Deir Ezzor. All soccer matches were cancelled for the rest of the season.
Through most of March, security-intelligence officials in Deir Ezzor described the unrest in straightforward terms. In a cable to his subordinates throughout the province, Brigadier General Jameh explained that the protests in Syria were influenced by “some Arab countries witnessing youth revolutions calling for change, democracy, freedoms, and reforms aimed at creating job opportunities for young men, improving living standards, and fighting corruption.” But by the end of the month the provincial security chiefs had adopted the language of conspiracy which emanated from Damascus. Hours after Assad gave his televised speech at the parliament building, on March 30th, the members of the Deir Ezzor security committee agreed to consider it “a reference and a pillar in our work,” and most of the group’s future discussions were infused with anxiety over treachery, sedition, foreign infiltration, and “the Zionist American project.”
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!”
According to captured minutes from the Deir Ezzor security committee, its members decided to infiltrate the mosques with Baath Party loyalists, “an average of two hundred comrades per mosque, to deal with any case that incites sedition.” The committee divided each group into three teams: one inside the mosque, one doing “reconnaissance” just outside, and the third on standby. But the plan backfired: the following week, the governor of Deir Ezzor informed the committee that “most of the men who were arrested by the security apparatus were Baathist comrades” who had abandoned the Party to join the protesters.
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.” Even as the committee discussed the importance of showing restraint, the violence escalated. Jameh said that protesters were courting “bloodshed, in preparation for summoning a foreign military intervention,” an outcome that he said he desperately wanted to avoid. Early the next morning, he sent a one-sentence cable to all military-intelligence sections in the province: “You are requested to instruct your agents to strictly refrain from opening fire indiscriminately and killing people.”
In May, security in the province rapidly deteriorated. Men armed with bats, pistols, and incendiary bombs burned two police stations, four police cars, and six police motorcycles. Intelligence agents learned that someone had tried to recruit volunteers to detonate a car bomb outside Jameh’s house. The head of the Deir Ezzor political-security branch warned, “There may be a wave of assassinations.”
Hamada, who was briefly detained twice, continued to organize protests, but he started spending nights in safe houses with other activists. One of his brothers had been arrested and hadn’t been released. In a meeting with the security committee, Jameh warned that the detentions could be “a double-edged sword,” increasing the number of angry people demanding their family members’ release. In late May, Jameh sent several cables expressing his outrage that interrogators were giving detainees electric shocks, putting out cigarettes on their flesh, beating them “on all parts of the body, in a disgusting manner,” and sodomizing them by forcing them to sit on soda bottles. He said that his jail would “refuse to take custody” of torture victims “unless there is a written report about the detainee’s health condition . . . that includes the names of those responsible for beating him.”
Jameh’s scruples apparently waned in the summer of 2011. Evidence obtained by the CIJA shows that detainees at his military-intelligence branch were beaten with fists, cables, and sticks until they were unconscious, their bones were broken, and their teeth fell out; stuffed into car tires and beaten until their feet bled; given electric shocks after having water poured on them; abused until they urinated blood; and beaten to death. Jameh personally participated in many of the interrogations.
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.”
This policy became the linchpin of the CIJA’s case against officials in the Syrian regime. Between Barakat’s documents from Damascus and the commission’s own six hundred thousand pages, retrieved from all over the country, analysts in Europe were able to trace the dissemination of these orders down multiple parallel chains of command from the Crisis Cell. Hisham Ikhtyar, the head of the National Security Bureau, sent the instructions to regional secretaries of the Baath Party, who chaired each province’s security committee, with additional orders to “implement what is requested of you, so as to speed up putting an end to the crisis.” The heads of the four security-intelligence agencies—military intelligence, Air Force intelligence, political security, and the general-intelligence directorate—sent the instructions to the provincial and regional branch heads, who passed them on to local security agents. Members of the Crisis Cell travelled to problematic provinces to oversee the formation of joint investigation committees. For the CIJA, identifying suspects was easy, Wiley said, because “their names are all over those documents.”
“If those are orders that are sent down, but no one acts on them, then it doesn’t really tell us much,” Chris Engels told me. “So it was equally important for us to see reports coming back up the chain of command,” confirming that those categories of people had been targeted for detention and interrogation, and that the leadership in Damascus remained informed of the abuses in detention facilities. “A consistent failure to control one’s subordinates who are behaving in a criminal manner will be prosecuted,” Wiley said. “The law of command and superior responsibility is extremely well evolved.” The Crisis Cell even demanded lists of all arrestees. Some members of the provincial security committees took preëmptive steps to satisfy their superiors. A copy of the Crisis Cell’s instructions was found in Raqqa with a handwritten note: “We did that a long time ago.”
Under international law, governments are obligated to investigate reports of human-rights abuses. In September, the public attorney in Deir Ezzor sent three faxes—later retrieved by the CIJA’s investigators—to the governor, the Syrian minister of justice, and the head of the province’s joint investigation committee, urging them to stop violating Syrian law. In one, he wrote, “Parents and relatives of the arrested persons are asking daily about the fates of sons, fathers, and brothers. You ought to listen to what they have to say. The hospital refrigerator is full of unidentified corpses that have disintegrated, since they have been there for a long period of time.”
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.’ ”
After they were stripped to their underwear, beaten, and thrown in a holding cell, about twelve feet square, with some forty other detainees, they learned that they were in the Air Force-intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport, one of the most notorious detention facilities in the country.
Two weeks later, 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.
The names were only the beginning. “How many people from the Syrian Arab Army did you murder?” Suhail asked. Hamada had already confessed to organizing protests, uploading videos, and speaking to the foreign press. “The challenge here is: how do you make up a story that you killed these people?” he said. His hands were cuffed to a pipe near the ceiling. “My feet were sixteen inches above the ground, so all of the weight was on my wrists,” he said. “I felt like the handcuffs were sawing my hands off. I stayed for more than half an hour, and then started screaming. Because I kept screaming, they shoved a military boot in my mouth and said, ‘Bite on this so you don’t scream.’ ” This method of torture was used in most Syrian security-intelligence detention facilities, with creative variations. Many detainees had their wrists bound behind their backs before being strung up by them; some were left hanging for days, others until they stopped breathing.
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.
In hundreds of witness interviews, the CIJA found consistent patterns in interrogation practices across all branches of the security agencies. People were detained following the Crisis Cell’s policy. Besides identifying “new targets,” the results of these interrogations were shared among the agencies. Detainees were routinely kept in inhumane conditions for months or years without entering the judicial system.
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.
Several months after first being tortured, Hamada stood in line with his nephew Fahad to ink their fingerprints onto their reports. Hamada assumed that his included his confession; he didn’t know, because reading the report was not an option. A seventeen-year-old boy stood in line behind Hamada and Fahad. When the guards learned that he was from Darayya, the suburb of Damascus, they knocked him to the ground. One fetched a welding torch and burned the boy “from here to here,” Hamada said, tracing a finger along his jawline. “And then he turned him around and he burned his neck and his entire back. . . . His face—I mean, it was fire. It was melting.”
Recalling the event, Hamada’s eyes grew damp and red. His voice faltered, and he sobbed desperately. For two days, he and other prisoners in the hangar tried to soothe the boy’s injuries as he was dying. When the guards came to retrieve the corpse, Hamada yelled at them. In response, they hung him by his wrists for several hours. He told me, “You want them to kill you anyway, so you can be done with this. You’re sick of the torture. You’re sick of the sleeping, and waking up, and living every single day.”
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. Prisoners were supposed to stand when a guard entered the cell, but on this day Hamada didn’t. “I’m urinating blood,” he said. The 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; the Presidential palace is perched at the top. The head of interrogation also told Hamada to forget his own name: “Your name is 1858.”
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.
“When I saw this, I swear—that’s when I thought this was my fate,” Hamada told me. “I would die here.” 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 June, 2013, Hamada’s case was referred to the judiciary. He was transferred to Adra Prison, in Damascus, where he filed an application for proof of the charges against him. (Syrian prisons are nominally subject to judicial oversight; the security agencies are not.) The written reply said that he had been arrested “for the crime of terrorism and has been deprived of his liberty since June 5, 2013”—the same date that the charges were filed. Officially, his fifteen months in the Air Force-intelligence branch at al-Mezzeh Military Airport didn’t exist.
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.”
Before Hamada was freed, he was interrogated by agents from the political-security department. They asked him about protests he had attended two years earlier. He immediately confessed: “I said, ‘Yes, I was at protests. I called the President an asshole!’ ” He added, “I had been through hell already. If it’s this, I’ll admit to everything.” When the agents brought Hamada back to the courtroom, the judge recognized him and immediately dismissed his case.
Hamada returned to Deir Ezzor, which he described as “a ghost city.” Two years of intense combat and air strikes had destroyed many of the buildings. The minaret of the Othman mosque had been shelled. His two nephews were still detained in the Air Force-intelligence branch in Damascus. Other family members had disappeared in security facilities.
During Hamada’s detention, the revolution had become a sectarian war. Jabhat al-Nusra had established itself as a powerful force, eclipsed in brutality only byISIS. Moderate rebel groups still existed but were often led by corrupt warlords, and lost fighters to more competent jihadi factions. Many of the revolutionaries who once fought for freedom had been radicalized or killed. Pro-Assad militias arrived in Syria from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iran. ISIS had a significant presence in Deir Ezzor. Hamada said, “They were killing all of the media activists and the democratic activists, and every time they did it in a different Hollywood way.”
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. Before the war, Caesar and his colleagues had documented crime scenes and traffic accidents involving military personnel in Damascus. He uploaded pictures to government computers, then printed them and stapled them to official death reports. Beginning in 2011, however, the bodies were those of detainees, collected each day from security branches and delivered to military hospitals.
At Hospital 601, Caesar’s team photographed bodies in the morgue and in a garage bay. Each corpse that was photographed had a unique number, usually four digits—like Hamada’s 1858—scrawled on paper, tape, the chest, or the forehead with a thick marker. Another number signified the intelligence branch in which the patient had been killed. There were about eleven thousand bodies. Caesar’s team sometimes catalogued more than fifty corpses a day—emaciated, mutilated, cut, burned, shot, beaten, strangled, broken, melted.
According to a U.N. report, after Caesar’s team had finished their documentation a doctor at the hospital usually wrote “heart attack” on the death certificate. Then the bodies were loaded onto trucks and hauled away. In rare cases, family members have been able to retrieve a body, but the report noted that in each known instance it “bore marks of extensive torture.” The report continued, “Some bodies were returned from hospital morgues to their family only after the family agreed to sign a statement confirming that the deceased had been killed by ‘terrorists.’ ”
Caesar fled Syria in August, 2013, with flash drives hidden in his socks. The photographs remained a secret until after he had spoken to a team of international prosecutors and forensic experts, the following January. Without a key connecting detainee names to the corpse numbers, identifying the dead is difficult. Many of the faces were thoroughly destroyed, or the eyes were gouged out. Syrian activists close to Caesar published several thousand pictures online, allowing family members to search for missing loved ones. The photographs also circulated in refugee camps. Some families discovered that they had been paying bribes to insure decent treatment for relatives who had been killed long before. So far, about seven hundred and thirty victims have been identified. Hamada recognized several of his cellmates in the files.
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 a formal response to a U.N. inquiry, Syria’s permanent mission to the U.N. wrote a letter citing Syria’s constitution and domestic laws as evidence that allegations of arbitrary detention and torture are “no longer plausible.” The letter continued, “We have no detainees unlawfully arrested with regards to peaceful demonstrations. If your question concerns individuals who have used weapons or terrorist acts against the state, it is an entirely different matter.” A few months later, Assad told Barbara Walters that Syria’s participation in the United Nations was “a game we play. It doesn’t mean you believe in it.”
This week, a new round of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition is set to begin in Geneva, where U.N. officials will shuttle between delegations that still refuse to meet in person. In advance of the negotiations, Barakat, the former mole in Damascus, told me that the opposition delegation asked him for copies of the documents he stole from Assad’s government; the delegation failed, however, to arrange a pickup.
In the past few months, as the Syrian Army has regained territory it had lost to rebel forces, it has come to seem increasingly unlikely that Assad will step down. His foreign minister, Walid al-Muallem, recently announced, “We will not talk with anyone who wants to discuss the Presidency.” Wiley and the CIJAstaff avoid comment on regime change. He told me, “We don’t get too caught up in the policy agony” of the efforts to end the Syrian war. “We’re simply confident—and I don’t think it’s hubris—that our work will see the light of day, in court, in relatively short order.”
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.” ♦
Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Copyright 2016 The New Yorker