The People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists Archive
Speaker 1: You mentioned at least three colleagues from the newspaper, they had been arrested, tortured and disappeared. Did you ever attempt as an individual or as a group, as a professional enterprise, to seek any accountability for their death?
Kholoud Helmi: We've been fighting for their justice since 2011 and 12 onward. Yes, we've been fighting for them, but unfortunately, we have never heard anything, not from the Security Council, not from the regime side, not from the international bodies and organisations. And I don't know if this is political, if this is done deliberately by countries that they don't want to set or put Assad accountable for all the crimes that he perpetrated. But it's always that no answers coming from anyone. And only recently we started to see tribunals in Koblenz and Frankfurt in Germany, but nothing beyond that. And I've lost faith in any kind of justice.
Fritz Streiff: When it comes to the Syria file, international criminal justice has faced some giant hurdles. The International Criminal Court remains blocked by vetoes.
Judges from Britain, America, Russia and France assemble in Nuremberg's courthouse. The tribunal sits in judgement upon 20 leaders of the Nazi Party. After a first day spent in reading the 30,000 word indictment, the unemotional tones of Lord Justice, London's President of the Court opened the second day’s proceedings…
Fritz: And Nuremberg style specialised tribunal set up could be ideal. This was the International Military Tribunal that was created in 1945, immediately following the end of the Second World War, to indict and try former Nazi leaders as war criminals. But the situation in Syria is nothing like Nazi Germany, where the perpetrators were defeated, the dictator was dead, the allies had come in to de-nazify the country, and here were the judges to decide on the defendant's fate. Not at all. Bashar al-Assad is still the president of Syria. And although attacks are less frequent and the fighting has died down, to an extent the war is still ongoing. It is also very hard, almost impossible, to get inside Syria and collect evidence on the ground.
This lack of an international solution to the overwhelming number of atrocity crimes committed in Syria has created huge frustration, but it has also created change and pushed for positive developments in the international accountability space.
Welcome to The Syria Trials. Episode Ten. Innovations.
The war in Syria does have one crucial element that is helping the justice and accountability process that the Second World War did not have - digital evidence. It is one of the most documented conflicts of all time, and the new generation has used its digital literacy to creatively search for new ways of documenting, preserving and using this evidence in legal proceedings.
Haneen Haddad: Syrian Archive is a Syrian led project. Our main purpose is to preserve, enhance and memorialise documentation of the human rights violations in Syria, that is committed by all parties of the conflict.
Fritz: Haneen Haddad is the project manager of the Syrian Archive. It was founded in 2014 by Hadi al-Khatib.
Haneen: It was established first as a response project, working in close collaboration with Syrian reporters and documentation groups to preserve digital information of the Syrian conflict. Our goal is to preserve and to verify evidence and to provide them to the prosecutions. So, we make sure that those crimes and the evidence of those crimes will not be lost or forgotten. It's such a dangerous area to be investigated in person. So with the amount of that documentations published on social media, we found ourselves in front of a lot of evidence that we can investigate and conduct open source investigation without being in the area or in danger.
Fritz: The archive has developed its own methodology to organise, process and then use the digital materials that they collect.
Haneen: First step is collection and for that we have built a database of credible sources for visual content. We have identified many thousands of credible sources that we use to build our archive. We automatically archive their content in daily basis. So we have preserved everything they have published on social media. And that means that we are dealing, for example, with 100,000s of new materials and we have more than four millions of records for historical materials. So we deal with that, but not manually.
Fritz: Engineers at the Syrian Archive developed a software called Diwan, that automatically archives both new and historical open source materials from their list of credible sources.
Haneen: We want to make sure that what we have and we archive is credible and can be reliable for further work like for accountability, for justice. We don't want to be affected by a propaganda or fake news that is a kind of characteristic in the war and in the conflict.
Fritz: After the data is collected and preserved, the next phase is to process it. Each material's metadata is extracted, including who the source is, a description of what it shows, and the media type, which could be visual, audio visual or even a PDF document. This helps the materials to be more easily filtered and searched for, and is important for possible later verification of the materials authenticity in court.
Haneen: The reason we want to preserve this materials is not to only preserve it, it's also to use it for further advocacy, work or justice and accountability. We aim to support human rights investigators, media reporters, journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria as well. And also, we have requests, confidential requests from prosecutors, from police, from crimes units. And in those cases, we are asked to provide information in different topics or themes in different kind of crimes like ISIS crimes, crimes from specific perpetrators or individuals.
Fritz: The Syrian Archive also conducts its own investigations.
Haneen: So we decided to work on some of the most recent attacks on civilians that has strong attribution to Russian air forces. We investigated two incidents in Idlib in the north of Syria. One is in Jisr Al Shughour and the second in Hafsarja. And both of the attacks had a massive impact on civilians. One of them killed more than seven civilians, including two children. So the way we linked this attack to Russia is that war planes that committed these airstrikes. Also, in one of the attack, there is cluster munition used in the attack, which is also used by Russia and being used by Russia in Ukraine right now. So it's further indicator that Russia was the perpetrator of those incidents.
Fritz: The evidence collected and processed by the Syrian Archive, as well as the findings of the investigations they have undertaken, are now being used in ongoing court cases and case building efforts. One example is the chemical weapons complaints filed in Germany, France and Sweden between 2020 to 2021, along with SCM and the Open Society Justice Initiative.
It is quite remarkable how something born out of the context of a highly digitised conflict like the war in Syria has been the starting point for something much bigger. The methodology and workflow pioneered by the Syrian Archive has also inspired other archives. There is now a Yemeni Archive, a Sudanese Archive and most recently a Ukrainian Archive. They all come under an umbrella organisation called Mnemonic, which is based in Berlin. There are also other Syrian groups who are now speaking with civil society groups in Ukraine, sharing experiences and documentation methods, and helping Ukrainians prepare for warfare situations that they know from Syria, like Russian siege tactics and possible chemical weapons attacks.
The collection, preservation and interpretation of these digital materials is an impressive and innovative effort in the justice and accountability for Syria space. But this work of organising and analysing the evidence is almost a second step of the process. It's important not to forget those who record and gather the materials in the first place, the people who were and still are on the ground in Syria. The evidence gatherers.
Ismail Alabdullah: My name is Ismail Alabdullah. I'm 35 years old. I am from Aleppo. Before 2011, I was an English teacher. Now I'm married. I have two daughters. I am White Helmets volunteer since 2013.
Nadia: With the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria, a group of civilian and normal people formed volunteer teams to respond to situations normally delegated to civil defence. So these volunteers work to recover bodies, to remove rubbles, to rescue the injured, to bury the dead, and mainly to save lives. And in 2013, these different groups started to organise their efforts. And in 2014, these groups agreed to form a single body, under a national leadership, under the name of Syria Civil Defence. And later, of course, the organisation became known as the White Helmets because of the distinctive helmets used by our colleagues in the field.
My name is Nadia. I am the White Helmets Justice and Accountability Programme Manager. I am a humanitarian worker and also an academic researcher.
Ismail: At the beginning of the work of the White Helmets, our job was to just respond to the bombings, killings, massacres that were committed by the Assad forces. No other task just to respond. In that time, I was one of those who was involved in the rescue operation. I remember how they target those people who were trying to get out of Aleppo City in the beginning of the morning, when the Assad's forces hit them with barrel bombs and killed maybe 40 people. So, we started documenting the crimes to make the world, actually, the international community aware of what Assad's forces were doing in Syria.
Nadia: I think it's important to highlight that the White Helmets started initially documenting the response to the incidents as a step to ensure monitoring, evaluation and the quality assurance of our own activities. And in addition, this documentation served also as a tool of communication through our social media, to speak about the situation on the ground and share about the violations that we witnessed.
Ismail: Because at that time Russia used and Assad's forces used their narrative telling the world what is happening in Syria. They said many times they were targeting military basements, armed groups in Aleppo city, but in reality they were targeting civilians, they were killing kids and women and elderly people. At that time, we didn't have equipment to document. We used our cell phones, mainly.
Fritz: Already a dangerous job, volunteering for the White Helmets became even riskier when the Syrian regime caught on to the fact that the attacks and massacres that they were attending to, were being shared on the internet for the whole world to see. The White Helmets then became targets themselves.
Nadia: We lost 294 colleagues, most of them because of double tap attacks.
Fritz: A double tap attack is a military tactic where armed drones or warplanes attack a site and then return to attack the same site again as people, like the White Helmets volunteers, carry out rescue work. This tactic violates international humanitarian law when it intentionally targets civilians, and those first responders who rush to help the wounded from the first attack. As well as being physically attacked, the White Helmets were subjected to a ferocious disinformation campaign. Russian and Syrian propagandists accused them of faking evidence of atrocities.
Ismail: We asked ourselves many times why we are target for the Assad's forces and Russian propaganda or the disinformation campaigns. At that time, we start to think that we are target because we are documenting those crimes. From that point, we started to think about how can we serve the justice and accountability and how we can give the victims, the families of the victims, their rights, their justice.
Nadia: Justice and Accountability Programme is one of the four programmes of the White Helmets. We are working mainly on documenting the violations in the field. My colleagues in Syria, due to their role as first responders, can document incidents in detail through their, for example, high resolution cameras. Our colleagues are well known with their GoPro in their helmets or their chests. So they record videos, pictures and provide relevant international partners with samples of the remnants of war. They identify like cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance.
Ismail: Imagine that you are going to document bombing. And you see a woman is burning alive. You know. This scene… And this has happened. I remember this. She was burning alive. No one, trust me, no one will document immediately. So that's why in the beginning, let me say, maybe we couldn't document 50% or 40% of the crimes, because the scene, the blood... How can I document this? You look left, you see a child lost, lost his hand. You look right, you see a woman burning. Other side, you see man without head. People are screaming for help. And so, your human nature will respond immediately to help the others. But somehow GoPro, it's solution somehow, because we turn it on from the centre and after we get back to the centre, maybe we can turn it off and upload or etc. And sometimes even we forgot to turn it on when we go. A lot of times actually, me a lot of times. When you get a call for a response, nothing is working in your mind. Just get in the car in seconds, to get to the scene to help. After you finish responding, you ask yourself what happened? You don't know. Why you didn't turn it on, okay. That's why.
Fritz: Unlike when the White Helmets first started recording videos on their phones and uploading them online, in order for the materials they collect now to be admissible as evidence in legal proceedings, they need to be handled very carefully.
Nadia: Over the years, as we started gaining experience and expertise in the field of justice and accountability and human rights in general, we learned that collecting potential evidence on international humanitarian law and international human rights law violations, is a very complex process. And often the way in which the visual material is collected and handled, might even create a gap in future legal proceedings which may allow the perpetrators to deny their violations. So for this reason, we started investing very seriously in this field to ensure violations are properly documented and processed in accordance with international standards. One of the most important components when it comes to using the evidence is the chain of custody. We know who collected the evidence. We know who transferred and who processed the evidence. This process ensures that the data provided remains original, authentic. Of course, without interference. If this chain is broken, the evidence may be rendered inadmissible in court. So this is a strong element and added value that the White Helmets can provide to the justice process for Syria.
Fritz: Ten years ago, it would have been very rare for civil society case builders and evidence gatherers, like the Syrian Archive, SCM and the White Helmets, to even get an appointment with prosecutors. But since the war began in Syria, an important and very welcome change has occurred in the justice and accountability space. Now, war crimes units of national police authorities and prosecutors are actively seeking out this contact, in the hope to access information and witnesses that they cannot find themselves, especially in the framework of an ongoing conflict.
The fact that national jurisdictions like Germany have now started so-called structural investigations into international crimes, which means investigations into a situation without a specific suspect in mind, is relatively novel too. This is usually something the International Criminal Court, the ICC would do. The more frequent use of universal jurisdiction is also an innovative effort in itself. Before 2011, UJ was perhaps not being used that widely, but the principle has enjoyed a kind of renaissance because of international atrocity crimes committed in Syria, and the international blockades to investigate and prosecute them.
Another innovation that has taken place is CIJA, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. In essence, CIJA is an NGO specialised in international criminal investigations. Its investigators go to places to collect evidence that others, like U.N. missions, won't, or can’t. Trials like the one in Koblenz and a number of cases related to Syria that have been brought to European and American courts, have greatly benefited from documents that CIJA is in possession of. Former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp is the chair of US Board of Commissioners.
Ambassador Rapp: CIJA from 2012 onward continued to grow and to benefit from the availability in areas of Syria that had fallen to the opposition, the moderate opposition, the Free Syrian Army.
Fritz: After the peaceful uprising turned into an armed conflict, the opposition forces known as the Free Syrian Army took control of various areas, including Aleppo and Idlib.
Rapp: And that made available hundreds of thousands of pages of regime documents that were abandoned by the regime. And CIJA became focussed particularly on bringing those documents out, scanning them in ways that they could be searched, developing eventually a facility to be able to search up to 3 million names and places.
Fritz: Syrian evidence gatherers on the ground were the ones who undertook the sometimes highly dangerous role of going into places abandoned by the regime, collecting the materials left behind, and getting these often-incriminating documents out of Syria.
Rapp: I've met members of the team and of the 30 or so investigators that have worked with CIJA, who are Syrians, lawyers and ex-police and others that have been on it staff now for, you know, eight or nine years. Those individuals describe a process that varies from place to place. But obviously the largest troves of documents were those that were physically available, and the security agencies left in file cabinets and boxes and then packaged and brought to the border and eventually brought over. And to be frank, that's a long process. With some documents, I think they're even still maybe 200,000 documents waiting in certain places for transportation, safely, because we're talking about a kind of material that would cause great harm to individuals if they were to be stopped by Syrian authorities.
Fritz: CIJA is essentially doing the job that really should be done by the ICC or specialised tribunal investigators with an international public legal mandate. The fact that a private organisation has had to step in and secure these documents, under great risk sometimes to the health and life of its investigators on the ground, says something about the degree of frustration that was widely felt in the early years of the war.
Rapp: It's clear to me that if CIJA hadn't been there, a lot of this material would have ended up being burned to stay warm in the winter and wouldn't be available today. Keep in mind that does indicate that a great many of the documents are types that were obtained before the regime began to retake places with Russian support, places like Aleppo. But this has provided information on a great many crime scenes beyond the places where the documents were obtained. Because to a large extent, this regime almost seems crazy in its process, collecting information on its own conduct. One often sees that in the way that documents are circulated broadly about events and other places, decisions made at high level, documents in particular in which the representatives of various parts of the Syrian security services, from Air Force intelligence to Military Intelligence to State Security, have placed their signatures.
Fritz: I call this atrocity bureaucracy. It's mind boggling, yet fairly typical of oppressive regimes to do this, to document their own crimes. Why? It could be people trying to get a stamp on a document to cover their own backs, wanting to prove to their superiors that they did in fact, execute their orders. It could be that different security agencies want to make sure that what they're doing is seen and recognised by the other agencies. As Ambassador Rapp mentioned, there are hundreds of thousands of these documents. CIJA analyses those in its possession and creates what could be described almost as pre-trial briefs, dossiers prepared almost as if they were actually going to trial. This work and information has contributed and continues to contribute to several criminal trials, with representatives of CIJA even having given witness testimony.
Rapp: And so if somebody wants to look at criminal responsibility in Homs, for instance, they can come and read our Homs brief, talking about the crimes committed generally there in 2012, including the killing of the journalists, Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik. And that information was of course, of enormous value in the civil case in the United States in which her family achieved a $302 million judgement against the Syrian state in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
Fritz: The case of Marie Colvin's family against the Syrian state was built by lawyers at the San Francisco based Centre for Justice and Accountability, or CJA. Not to be confused with CIJA. It took them years of information gathering and legal analysis, but in 2019, the U.S. District Court ruled in favour of the family. This decision was the first judgement in open court that heavily relied on documents and legal analysis provided by CIJA.
Rapp: People can be very impressed with 1.3 million pages of documents that each has, but they're not just sitting in boxes. They were used to build a structural investigation. The Syria Mechanism, headed by Catherine Marchi-Uhel also now speaks of their structural investigation. So you're building a case on a lot of people you don't have, that enables you to fit those that you do have into the broader picture and hold them responsible for what they did directly, but also and sometimes much more importantly for the things that they made happen indirectly.
Fritz: The mechanism Ambassador Rapp refers to is the IIIM, the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria. The IIIM was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2016, after vetoes in the UN Security Council prevented referral of the Syrian situation to the ICC, the International Criminal Court. The IIIM is like a specialised tribunal for Syria, but without any judges or trials. Because creating a tribunal with judges and putting on trial high Syrian government and military representatives there, would be seen as an infringement of the sovereignty of the Syrian state. According to the UN Charter, this is a power that only the Security Council has - which was blocked by vetoes. So a coalition of states, fed by an active and creative civil society, pushed for this mechanism which investigates crimes and provides information from its analysis to actual prosecuting authorities. This kind of mechanism has never existed before, but it has since been replicated for other situations as well, due to its success formula to circumvent international political blockades.
There have also been other efforts outside of case building and official legal processes that have perhaps felt more meaningful to the justice process for some Syrians. In May 2020 to the case of Nabil al-Sharbaji was heard at the People's Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists in The Hague. Human rights activist Kholoud Helmi was there to testify.
Kholoud Helmi: It's not an official tribunal. It's an effort by human rights organisations and media organisations, like to start these tribunals in memory of journalists who lost their lives documenting events in countries such as Syria. So the tribunal is made up of human rights activists, judges and journalists who listen to the testimonies of the people regarding each and every journalist. I was there for Nabil Sharbaji, co-founder of Enab Baladi.
Fritz: Enab Baladi was the newspaper Kholoud and Nabil Sharbaji, along with a number of others, founded in 2011. It was created with the aim of reporting what was really happening in Syria, how the peaceful protests were being met with violence, and how huge numbers of people were being detained, including Nabil. Nabil was killed in detention in Saydnaya military prison, on the 3rd of May 2015.
Kholoud: We believe that the evidence collected at the end of the tribunal can turn into a valid evidence to be used in an official tribunal that might happen in the future. Telling the story of Nabil and how he was killed, why he was killed. And what could have happened if he survived up till this moment. Like the change that we could have seen maybe, because I mean, we've lost so many of them at the early stages of the Syrian Revolution, and most of them were literally influencers, great, great personalities. I mean, if they were alive now, the whole face of the Syrian cause is going to be completely different. But telling his story, telling our story to the people, having it recorded, you feel that maybe my message is going to survive or to be alive through the person who listened to me. And then they tell it in a different occasion. But until we have, like really serious tribunals, I don't think I'm going to be silent because, I mean, I am alive and I have my full memory, not full memory, but I lost so many parts of it. We're getting old and traumatised and I don't know when I'm going to be dead, but as long as I hold tight to my memory and to their memory, I think I have a mission to keep telling and narrating their stories in whatever means possible.
Rapp: Well, I hope that there will come a day that Assad will stand trial. And how do things like that happen? Eventually, there's a transition in those countries. Eventually that particular leader becomes radioactive, even to his own supporters. The case against him is strong. It becomes stronger every day. I've said before, thanks to CIJA, thanks to Caesar, the evidence that we have is, frankly, at the end of the day, stronger than the evidence that we had against the Nazi leaders in Nuremberg.
Nadia: I do believe that holding the perpetrators accountable is the first step toward any democratic process in Syria. We believe that this first step is very important and very decisive for building a new country committed to human rights and the rule of law. For this reason, it's very important to keep hope. We are aware that the justice process might take years.
Ismail: We believe that our work and our efforts in justice and accountability will bring those who committed crimes, committed crimes against civilians in Syria, accountable. Today, tomorrow, after a year, after 10 years, we hope that justice will be served and justice will be applied. You know, this happened in the history. They hold accountable for criminals who committed crimes after 20 years. And we hope that one day those parties, Assad's forces, Assad himself. We hope that we will hold accountable for their crimes.
Fritz: Next time in episode 11, the final episode in this season of The Syria Trials, we look at where we've been and where we go from here on the road to justice and accountability for Syria. I’m Fritz Streiff, and if you want to support and help spread the word about our podcast, please subscribe or leave a review in your podcast app. Or tell everyone you know about it. Thank you for listening.