Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising in 2011, many have died in detention facilities run by the Syrian government’s notorious mukhabarat (security agencies). In 2012, Human Rights Watch identified and mapped 27 of these detention centers around the country, many in the capital, Damascus. While accounts by released detainees and defectors consistently indicated that incommunicado detention and torture were rampant and detainees were dying in large numbers in Syria, the scale of abuse and deaths in detention remained unknown.
Then in January 2014, news emerged that a defector had left Syria with tens of thousands of images, many showing the bodies of detainees who died in Syria’s detention centers. A team of international lawyers, as well as Syrian activists, interviewed the defector, code-named “Caesar,” who stated that, as an official forensic photographer for the Military Police, he had personally photographed bodies of dead detainees and helped to archive thousands more similar photographs.
These photographs were taken apparently as part of a bureaucratic effort by the Syrian security apparatus to maintain a photographic record of the thousands who have died in detention since 2011 as well as of members of security forces who died in attacks by armed opposition groups. The exact purpose of the photographs is not clear. In an interview with a journalist, Caesar himself indicated that he “often wondered” about the reason but that in his view, “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.”
In total, according to the international team of experts that prepared the first report on the collection, Caesar smuggled more than 50,000 images out of Syria on discs and thumb drives until he defected.
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