Syria's regime subjected some 7,000 prisoners — all of whom died in custody — to torture, starvation, and execution since the country's 2011 uprising, a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on Wednesday said.
The advocacy group analyzed thousands of photographs taken by a defector from Assad's regime — identified only as "Caesar."
Caesar had worked as an official forensic photographer for the Bashar al-Assad regime's military police, and had taken the pictures as part of an apparent massive bureaucratic effort by the Syrian government to document prisoner deaths, as well as deaths among security forces who died in the country's conflict.
Caesar smuggled more than 50,000 photographs — showing the bodies of prisoners or security personnel labelled with a series of unique identification numbers — out of the country on disks and thumb drives before he defected.
The precise reason the regime took the photographs is not known. In a previous press interview, Caesar said he had "often wondered" why they were being taken, but added: “The regime documents everything so that it will forget nothing. Therefore, it documents these deaths…If one day the judges have to reopen cases, they’ll need them,” according to HRW.
HRW said they were able to identify 19 of the dead prisoners in the photographs, the youngest of whom was just 14 years old. The images were then examined by forensic pathologists.
Many of the images studied by HRW have been traced back to some of the most notorious and feared government sites from Syria's years of war and decades of brutal state control, including the 601 military hospital in the Damascus suburb of Mezze.
The advocacy group spoke to defectors and nurses with first-hand knowledge of the systems used in the detention centers. They detailed inhumane conditions, where prisoners were kept in filthy, overcrowded cells for months, and in some cases years.
Thirty-seven former detainees were also interviewed and they said they were provided with so little food that they gradually starved, with one former prisoner saying he lost half his body weight in six months. Others said guards did not allow them to bathe.
Former detainees and detained doctors said common causes of death in the detention centers included gastrointestinal infections, skin disease leading to infection, torture, mental distress which led to detainees refusing to eat and drink, and chronic diseases for which they were not provided treatment.
The youngest detainee identified by HRW was 14-year-old Ahmad al-Masalmani from Namr in Daraa, who had been sent to Lebanon by his family for his own safety after his brother was shot and killed in the 2011 uprising.
His mother died of natural causes a little more than a year after he left the country, but when he returned to Syria for her via minibus with five other people, he was stopped and arrested.
Ahmad's family members told HRW that a fellow passenger had said he had been stopped by intelligence officers at a checkpoint, who discovered an anti-Assad song on his phone.
After he was detained, his uncle Dahi al-Musalmani, then a judge, used his contacts to try to locate Ahmad, and unsuccessfully paid thousands of dollars' worth of bribes to a man with strong government links to secure his release.
“I started to beg him,” he said. “I am a judge and I became a beggar. I am a judge and I will kiss his feet so that he accepts."
When photographs of dead prisoners were released, Dahi — who by that point was in Jordan — found Ahmad's image among them.
"It was a shock. Oh, it was the shock of my life to see him here," he said. "I looked for him, 950 days I looked for him. I counted each day. When his mother was dying, she told me: ‘I leave him under your protection.’ What protection could I give?"
Five pictures of Ahmad appeared among the Caesar photographs, in a folder dated August 2012 — the month he was arrested. HRW showed the pictures to forensic pathologists, who said that the body had several marks of blunt force trauma.
The only woman identified by HRW was Rehab al-Allawi, a 25-year-old engineering student at Damascus University who was working at an activist group. She disappeared in January 2013.
Her family had been told by a Syrian military official that she had died of a stroke a few months after her disappearance, and they visited what they believed to be her grave.
However, an acquaintance who knew the Syrian justice minister called them in June 2013 to say that she was still alive.
Rehab's relatives had eventually paid over $100,000 in bribes to various government and military officials — one of whom said she had left Syria for Lebanon.
When the Caesar photographs were published online in March 2015, a cousin called the family to say they may have spotted Rehab among the images. The family had to ask for help from fellow former detainees to identify her, as her appearance had altered drastically due to poor diet and lack of physical activity.
The photographs of Rehab's body were in a file dated June 2013. Forensic pathologists found no visible evidence of injuries or blunt force trauma, but identified an IV line in her left arm.
Some 117,000 people are estimated to have been held at the five government detention centers identified in the report since the 2011 uprising against the Assad government.
The report comes ahead of a 17-nation meeting of the International Support Group on Syria that kicks off in New York on Friday, which will attempt to find a path towards an end to the country's five-year civil war.