They are drawing up a fourth confidential list of suspects, either
individuals or units linked to crimes committed since July, Karen
Koning AbuZayd, an American expert serving on an independent
commission of inquiry set up by the United Nations in 2011, said in
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in December that evidence
collected by the investigators implicates President Bashar al-Assad,
later denying that she had direct knowledge of their secret lists.
AbuZayd said the lists went up to "higher levels" of the Syrian
government, declining to be more specific in the interview in
Geneva, where the first talks involving the warring parties are
expected over the coming week.
Foreign fighters in Syria, mainly Islamist groups, have their "own
agenda", sometimes setting up sharia courts that issue summary
sentences carried out immediately, including executions, AbuZayd
"Civil wars can be pretty bad, but people coming in from outside
with radical agendas really don't give a damn what they do to things
or people in that wonderful country that Syria was."
Photographs allegedly taken by a Syrian military police photographer
said to show the systematic torture and killing of about 11,000
detainees are not deemed admissible evidence for now, although the
team is trying to find out more, AbuZayd said.
"We've told those people who have this information, to whom it was
given, that whatever they would want to share with us, we would be
"They claim to have numbers and names and so on and that families
have identified some of these people. But they have to be very
careful because the families are still inside (Syria)."
The 55,000 images provided by the photographer, who fled Syria after
passing the pictures to Assad's opponents, show emaciated and
"As far as we understand, those things are done, as described. But
where these things came from and who the person was and all of that,
we just don't know," AbuZayd said.
"For us of course it is also a single source which we wouldn't use
because it is only a single source," she said at the Geneva-based
U.N. human rights office.
The U.N. commission of inquiry has previously documented a number of
cases of torture that led to death, similar to those described in
Britain's Guardian newspaper on Monday. Reported deaths in custody
rose markedly during 2013, it has said.
According to the U.N. findings, the Syrian government and its
intelligence agencies have used widespread, systematic torture to
interrogate, intimidate and punish people seen as opponents. Torture
has been used in detention centers, security branches, prisons and
Documented methods used by the government include electric shocks,
severe beating while in stress positions, cigarette burns, mock
executions, sleep deprivation, and psychological torture such as
threats to rape family members, it says.
[to top of second column]
REFUGEES BEARING SCARS
AbuZayd, who has interviewed Syrian refugees bearing scars on their
backs and gauged eyes from mistreatment in detention, said: "It is
certainly not the first time that these things have been identified.
"We've had many more interviews over the years, the two and a half
years that we have been collecting evidence of these kind of things
happening in detention centers."
The U.N. investigators have also documented torture and killings by
rebel forces and said in September that hardline rebels and foreign
fighters invoking jihad, or holy war, have stepped up killings,
executions and abuses in the north.
"Since there is tension between and among the various opposition
groups, we're getting more information about opposition groups from
other opposition groups. So there is more information on both sides
now," AbuZayd said.
Paulo Pinheiro, who leads the inquiry, is among four commissioners
who include AbuZayd, former U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del
Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn. They are finalizing their next report,
due to be issued on February 20.
Their team of more than 20 investigators has interviewed 500
refugees, defectors and people still in Syria since July, bringing
the total number of testimonies gathered to 2,600 since the inquiry
began its work in Sept 2011.
The International Criminal Court — the world's first permanent war
crimes court — has so far been powerless to act on Syria because
Damascus did not sign up to it and the U.N. Security Council has
been deadlocked as Russia and China oppose referring Syria to the
"It has to come through the Security Council in the case of Syria.
That's been the problem all along. How many times have we challenged
the Security Council about this? They are the ones that have to take
action," AbuZayd said.
"We have a lot of investigators that have been through the ICC,
they've worked there," she said. "They know the rules, what kind of
evidence is needed. I think we have really solid stuff that will
come out from them."
The U.N. has an "enormous database" that would be available to any
judicial body deemed objective and appropriate, she said. The whole
point of the team's mandate was accountability.
"Otherwise what we're doing doesn't make any sense, it has no
meaning unless someone is called to account one day for all this
information that we are collecting and all these abuses we are
documenting," she said.
Both the Syrian government and opposition have accused each other of
crimes, demanding perpetrators be held to account.
"They both want accountability about what the others do, rather than
themselves," she said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.