Branch 251/
S1E14: The Photo Album of the Syrian People


‘Caesar’ is the code name of a Syrian military photographer turned defector. He was tasked with taking photos of dead detainees. Tens of thousands of them. He later turned on his bosses and smuggled the photographs out of Syria. Together with journalist Garance Le Caisne and victims lawyer Patrick Kroker, we tell you the story behind the Caesar Photos and their relevance as evidence in the Koblenz trial. And what they mean to so many Syrians personally, including co-host Karam.

For regular updates, you can follow us on Twitter: @Branch_251, @Fritz_Streiff , @KaramShoumali and @paulinepeek

Additional information on the topics discussed in the episode:

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Episode Transcript


Fritz: Welcome, listeners. The court was back in session this week. For an update we will hear from our court reporter towards the end of this episode. First, we will discuss what is probably the most gruesome thing that came out of Syria during the course of this chronic conflict, the Caesar photos. A quick note of caution. What we will discuss on this week's episode might be disturbing to some listeners as we will talk about pretty raw accounts, photos of torture and mutilated bodies. Please take care when listening.

Caesar and the Caesar photos have been a recurring topic in the trial. Caesar is the code name of the police photographer turned military photographer turned defector. He was tasked with taking photos of dead detainees. He later turned on his bosses and smuggled the photographs out of Syria. In Koblenz, the prosecutor, the lawyers, and the victims have mentioned the Caesar photos during some of the court sessions. The judges actually projected one of the photos onto a large screen for everyone to see on the seventh day of this trial. Anyone sitting in court that day had to look at it. In this episode. We'll tell you the story behind the Caesar photos, and their relevance to this trial as evidence, and what they mean to Syria and Syrians, including you, Karam.

Karam: Yes, the content of these photos was highly shocking to me as a Syrian, also as a journalist. Towards the end of 2013, a few photos started making the rounds online with the claim that they had been leaked from the Syrian security apparatus. Gut-wrenching photos of the detainees starved to death, tortured to death, looking pale and skinny, disfigured faces and gouged eyes, illegal trenching. While at the New York Times, my colleague and I started looking into these photos. What are they and who leaked them? We started calling everyone we thought might know about the process of smuggling them or involved in it.

Eventually, we had a lead with a Syrian opposition figure based in Istanbul. We arranged to meet him and his team. Within a few days, we met him twice, at his office in an Istanbul suburb, and at this apartment where we met a Syrian activist, who gave us his name as Sammy. He told us he was Caesar's confidant and helped him throughout the whole process. We talked and negotiated showing us the photos, all of them. A few days later in early 2014, we received a call to go to some hotel in the same area. At that time, you would see a lot of Syrian opposition figures in and around that hotel. We sat in the empty library. My colleague and I were given a laptop without a network connection, with each mouse click, the Syrian activist filled the screen of his laptop with a new portrait of horror.

Commenting on the photos, he said, "Every family has a photo album where they keep their happier memories. This is the album of the Syrian people." Then he left us. There it was, thousands and thousands of photos, dead people, mostly men but also women and children, all with number tags on their foreheads or inked directly on their bodies or faces. We were shocked and speechless. I had never seen anything like this before. On that day, the reality of the Syrian conflict changed for me. I felt hopeless and defeated. All I could think about at that moment was the perpetrators. Who would do that to human being, and why? On that day, we silently browsed through over 53,000 photos for hours and hours.

Fritz: When I first saw these photos, they reminded me a lot of Nazi death camp photos, or the pictures from concentration camps in the former Yugoslavia, or the terrifying scenes from the Rwandan genocide, just absolutely awful. For you, Karam, the photos suddenly became much more personal just a few weeks ago, about six years after the first time you saw the Caesar photos.

Karam: Yes. I'll explain that to you together with French journalist and author, Garance Le Caisne.

Garance: My name is Garance Le Caisne, I am a French freelance journalist. I've been working on Middle East issues for the last 25 years.

Karam: She spoke to Cesar and everyone involved for her book.

Garance: In 2015, I wrote a book in French language called Operation Caesar: At the Heart of the Syrian Death Machine . The book was translated in several languages. It was translated in English in 2018.

Karam: I spoke with her and started by asking her who is Caesar and what are the Caesar photos.

Garance: Caesar used to work for the Syrian regime as a photographer with the military police in Damascus. Actually, before the war, Caesar and his colleague had to photograph crime and accident scenes involving military person, suicide, traffic accident, house fires. They have to make photos, and they had to go back to the office and write a report with the pictures. When the first demonstrations appear in March 2011, they were called to go to the morgue of the military hospital. They had to make photos of bodies of civilians injured by bullets. After some time, they had to make photos of bodies of persons who have been detained in detention facilities. What we called Caesar file, it's a file who contains thousands of official photos of dead detainees.

The photo it's naked bodies. You can see that the person have been torture or they died from hunger or from disease. You can see it's not a natural death. Often, the photos it's a photo of each person, but you can find also photos with a number of bodies all together. You can imagine that there is a process of doing these photos, and like process of a death machine in fact. When the bodies arrive at the hospital, they were marked with two numbers written on the sticky tape or in a felt tip directly on the forehead or on the chest. The first number was that of the detain himself. The second number, that of the branch of the intelligent service where he had been detained.

The pathologist, the guy who arrive early in the morning, would give him a third number, it's a number for his medical report. Yes, the bodies had three numbers. The Caesar files contain 53,275 photos. Inside these photos, you have one file who contain 28,707 photos of people who died in detention. These photos represent in fact 6,786 person, because Caesar and his colleagues, they had to make several photos of each person. Sometime three photos, sometime four photos.

Fritz: In each photo, we see a number to identify the individual detainee, a number that relates to the branch that he or she was at, and a medical number given by the pathologist. The actual exact number of dead detains in those photos is six 6,786.

Karam: Yes. Caesar took multiple photos of every victim from different angles. This means that we are talking about just under 29,000 photographs taken in detention centers or military hospitals. There are more photographs, another 24,000 actually, but they show dead Syrian army soldiers, rebel fighters, and civilian casualties, not civilians who died from torture. The total number of photos is around 53,000. Caesar took these photos between March, 2011 and August 2013.

Fritz: August 2013, that is when this military police photographer, later code name Caesar, defected.

Garance: Caesar, when he understood that he will have to make photos of these dead bodies of these detainees who have been killed inside the detention facilities, when he faced with the accumulation of bodies, he wanted to quit his job. He wanted to defect, but he went to see Sammy. Sammy, he was activist in the revolution. Sammy was a longtime family friend. He was a construction engineer. The two men had known each other for over 20 years. Caesar went to say Sammy and he told him, "I must go." Sammy answer, "No you have to stay," because Sammy understood the value of these photos.

These photo were the evidence of the crime of this regime. Sammy and Caesar decided to collect these photos over long months in order to accumulate as many photos as possible. From spring 2011 up to summer 2013, Caesar copied thousands of them on two flash disc. He smuggled out of the military police headquarters, hidden in his socks or his belt. Sammy took it and kept them on several hard drives. In summer 2013, Caesar fled to Sweden. He was smuggled from Syria by opponents of the regime. Sammy left the country too.

Fritz: It's really quite a thriller story, how he slowly managed to smuggle those photos in batches, out of his workplace, and eventually take a dangerous journey to get himself and his family out of Syria.

Karam: Let's just pause for a moment on the fact that this guy was just your average police photographer, traffic accidents, and crime scenes, and then he finds himself taking pictures of people who are tortured to death day in and day out. Suddenly, that was his job. It just begs the question, why was this even anyone's job? Why would the government document its own crimes?

Garance: These questions, it's difficult to answer. There are several reasons. Maybe the first reason, it's Syria, the regime used to record and file every bit of information, every document. The regime documents everything so that it will forget nothing, just like the communist Eastern Bloc used to do it before. For 50 years, the military police have recorded details of accidental deaths involving the military. After the start of the revolution and during the war, they kept doing the same routine. Caesar was doing the same routine, but not only with soldiers, but also with the detainees.

Maybe the second reason why the regime archive such photos, it's the state suspects everyone. There is a culture of fear in the regime. No one trusts anyone. The guy who obeys orders must show that he has obeyed them. He must convince his superior for fear of being arrested and put in jail without trial, so they archive and they document. Maybe, in addition, we can find a third reason. The photo have been used by the intelligent services to inform families of the fate of their loved ones without having to produce an actual mutilated body. They will have a death certificate saying that the death was due to natural causes like heart attack, but to have this death certificate, you have to be sure that the guy is dead, so the photos will show that the guy is dead. Of course, the deaths of prisoners due to hunger or torture is secret, but the event is recorded and you have a death certificate about it.

The last reason maybe it's because the security services and Bashar al-Assad himself, they have a feeling of impunity. They couldn't imagine that one day they will be called to account for their abuses. They never thought that these photos will get out and be seen by the world. We don't know exactly why the regime archive such photos, but we have several reasons. Maybe it's a mixed or all of these reasons, maybe only one reason, we don't know exactly, but we suppose.

Fritz: Garance here discusses four possible reasons for the regime to document these crimes like that. One is the military recorded "accidental deaths" already before the war, and then continued doing so after the uprising, but not just with soldiers, but also dead detainees. Then the second reason is what she calls the culture of fear, the regime controlling its own state agents, making sure that they actually followed orders. The third reason she mentions is that the photos allow the Syrian authorities to actually issue a death certificate to the families without having to return the body. The last reason she mentions is impunity. Apparently, the Assad regime thought the photos would never be leaked.

We have all these reasons, and they have been mentioned before, also in other historical context. Garance compared it to former communist Eastern Bloc states. I'm also reminded of the mountain of paperwork produced by Nazi Germany. Still, despite all these explanations and reasons, I just find it totally mind-blowing that regimes commit monstrous massive crimes, and then document them for tedious, bureaucratic reasons mostly. It still seems so paradoxical to me. Wouldn't they be better off just doing it in the shadows and not registering any of it? One would think that, right? It completely undermines this air of secrecy that these regimes operate in.

Karam: Of course, the Syrian government is now denying their authenticity. When President Bashar al-Assad was asked in a 2017 Yahoo News interview about the Caesar photos, he replied by asking.

Assad: Who verified the pictures? Who they verified that they're not edited in Photoshop, and so on?

Karam: As far as he's concerned, they are fake Photoshopped, doctored. However, the photos have actually been verified multiple times.

Garance: The photos have been verified by legal and forensic expert. The first time, it was in January 2014 by the British law firm Carter-Ruck. Three war crimes lawyers interviewed Caesar, analyze the photos, and they claim that the regime practices torture on the large scale on its prisoner. After Caesar went to Washington in July 2014, he gave photos to the FBI. One year later in June 2015, the FBI issued a five-page report and declare that the photos have not been manipulated, and they show rail people and events.

Karam: Considering the fact that the photos have been verified, I'm wondering what is the value of the photos as evidence in court, for example, now in Koblenz, even Assad himself question this?

Assad: The most important thing, if you take these photos to any court in your country, could they convict any criminal regarding this? Could they tell you what this crime, who committed?

Fritz: We will link to the full interview by Yahoo News with Bashar al-Assad from 2017 in the show notes. Obviously, as a lawyer, dealing with these topics in my work, I find this question intriguing. If these photos can be used as evidence in court, the evidentiary value would be absolutely priceless, because you can actually see the dead bodies. You can almost see the crime. That is quite unusual for these types of international trials, but that's a big if. We don't know yet if the court in Koblenz will accept the photos as evidence. We also don't know if the content of the photos will actually prove to be relevant for the specific charges against Anwar R and Eyad A.

Here's what we do know though, Garance already mentioned this. In early 2014, a team of very well-respected legal and forensic experts analyzed the photos, interviewed the man they would later give the code name Caesar and came to the following conclusion, and I quote here, "Caesar's evidence was reliable and could safely be acted upon in any subsequent judicial proceedings." Here's another quote from the conclusion of that report, "The inquiry team is satisfied that upon the material it has reviewed, there's clear evidence capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. Such evidence would support findings of crimes against humanity against the current Syrian regime. Such evidence could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime."

This report was shared with the United Nations Security Council in April 2014. It became public then and was circulated widely. It's still available on the UN website. We will include a link to it in the show notes, but beware, there are really gory descriptions and sample photos in there. If after all this, the German prosecutor decides to submit the photos as evidence, the Koblenz court will be the first court to test their legal value. Whatever the outcome, it will set an important precedent for trials to come.

To get some more insights on the legal elements of the Caesar story, we talked to Patrick Kroker. Patrick is one of the lawyers representing victims in Koblenz. He also leads the Syria Justice and Accountability work at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, ECCHR. We asked him how the photos ended up with the German authorities after Caesar smuggled them out of the country.

Patrick: These images have been then given to the authorities in Lichtenstein, which then distributed them on request to other prosecution authorities worldwide basically, including the German ones. In Germany, they were in the focus of the investigative work that was being done. It was already announced by then that each and every picture was being examined by medical forensic specialists and by data analyst specialists for building cases, and to be part of case files. Of course it's a very difficult task, but it's evidence-wise super important because they will be presented really as evidence of a killing of a specific person.

Whereas normally in law, to prove a killing without having the body, we all know that from TV basically, it's really important. We will probably never see these bodies. Even the families won't because nobody knows where they are, et cetera. Here, this can be the proof, but for that of course, there must be a medical forensic specialist being able to examine the photo to make sure, "Yes, that person is dead. I can say maybe this and that about the potential cause of death," et cetera. It's a very cumbersome task, it takes a lot of time. We must also think about the vicarious trauma that can be triggered by having that as your job to do that. Eight hours a day is not even possible. They had also reduced working hours on these images, et cetera.

Fritz: Reduce working hours. Vicarious trauma. These are also topics that we deal with here on the podcast team. I was thinking about it just last night. During the afternoon, I looked back at some of the gruesome Caesar photos and told myself that I would do something fun and relaxing afterwards to compensate. Then in the evening I ended up watching a film that also showed pretty terrible scenes of torture. Not smart, not good for the soul. We all need to be aware of this and give ourselves breaks. Anyways, back to Patrick. We wanted to know what he thought the Caesar photos would mean in terms of evidence generally, and for the Koblenz trial specifically. His reply was a mix between optimism and caution.

Patrick: The evidentiary weight of these images, it is enormous, because it's not only proof in my eyes of these thousands of victims of each and every individual killing linked or linkable to a detention facility that is reflected in the number, et cetera. There are other information we get from that because there is another number, which is the detainee number that might also appear in other files. It also gives is evidence of the systemacy of these crimes, the scale. It's very very, very important in many ways.

Given this trial, speaking about the trial of Anwar, there's still some insecurity attached to that, how far they will be used for showing individual killings in al-Khatib branch, because the time when these images were taken extended the time of Anwar's tenure, so to say, in al-Khatib branch.

After September 2012, Caesar continued to work and to add images to this volume of images that he then handed over. Can we trace back which image directly stems from what time? I don't know. If we can't, then I see the problem that in dubio pro reo, as it says in Latin, we might need to basically always assume the best case for the accused, that all images from al-Khatib were taken after September 2012, and therefore after Anwar had left office. This is one of the open questions that will be determined throughout the trial, I would say.

Karam: Thank you, Patrick. We are very curious to see how the Caesar photos will continue to play a role in the Koblenz trial and beyond. The photos came to light in the end of 2013, but according to Garance, they have not resulted in that much concrete action.

Garance: Yes, it was a shock for a lot of people, but in fact these photos spur outrage but not action. Because this file contains photos of detainees who died under a torture, starvation or untreated disease in the regime's prisons. These photos are very disturbing, they're inhuman. You would like to believe that this image, are a thing of the past. We would like them in black and white, but they're in color and they're today. They're from now.

Karam: Garance, thank you so much for your time.

Garance: You're welcome. Thank you, Karam. Shukran.

Karam: Before 2013, families of people who disappeared were in the dark about the fate of their loved ones, where were they taken and what was happening to them? The Caesar photos answered some of these questions. They shone a light on the darkest, most secret part of the Assad regime's practices. They confirmed people's worst fears. Up until today, families come across the faces of their loved ones in the Caesar photos. I have come across photos of two people from my hometown, and one of a distant relative. Just a few weeks ago, my aunt sent me a photo leaked by Caesar showing a young man dead and starved. She was sure it was her son.

I was sure it was him, my cousin. He had the same eyebrows and he had the same eyelashes. We were positive it was him. We did not know anything about him since the end of 2012. He went to grab some food but never came back. She saw that photo and cried for three days. I contacted Ibrahim al-Kasem, a member of Caesar Files Group, and arranged for a call with my missing cousin's sister. He found for us the other photos of this detainee. After many questions about body marks and surgeries done or not, facial hair and other physical description, it was not him. I was relieved It was not him, but also my mind was stuck on the young guy in the photos. Who is he? Did his family identify him or is he still a number? My cousin, Ahmad, was a friend of mine. I looked up to him and we were close. He might be in another photo that we haven't seen yet. He might be alive, we don't know, but he has been missing for 2,819 days.

Fritz: I'm really sorry for you, for your aunt and your family. Let's hope for the best.

Karam: Thank you, Fritz.

Fritz: It's time to hear from our court reporter from Koblenz, Hannah el-Hitami.

Hannah: This week in court was dedicated to survivors, former detainees of Branch 251. The first witness' description of Branch 251 was actually much less gruesome than other statements we had heard before. Yes, he did say that there were overcrowded cells, that when he arrived he was pushed into the cell and he fell onto bodies not onto the floor. Other than that, he said that he never saw any dead bodies. He never saw any blood. He didn't see anyone with major injuries in his cell.

In the end, there was some confusion as to whether he had actually been in the Branch 251, because he said, "Yes, it's called al-Khatib branch, and it's also called the Air Force Detention branch." As everyone in the courtroom knows by now, that's not the case. Branch 251 belongs to the General Secret Service, not the Air force Secret Service. In the end there was actually some confusion whether he might have been in a different branch.

Even though the topic of his statement was obviously not funny, he had a quite humorous way of talking about some of the points. For example, he was asked whether upon his release he asked what was the reason for his release from Branch 1251. He was like, "Well, no I didn't ask that. I just wanted to get the hell out of there." Something along those lines. It sounded quite funny to many, and people were laughing. Anwar R was actually laughing so much that he was hiding his mouth behind his hand. I don't know why exactly he found that so funny, but maybe from a common understanding that in Syria when you you're released from prison, you get out of there, you don't ask for reasons, you don't ask questions.

The witness on Thursday gave a much less humorous statement. He talked about the horrible detention conditions in Branch 251. He saw people die in the cell and being taken out of the cell. He himself received so much whipping on the soles of his feet during interrogation that he had a very severe infection on his foot. At some point, he actually had to cry during his testimony, and his wife who was in the audience was crying as well. The court had to take a break of 10 minutes for the witness to go outside and to calm down.

Fritz: That's it from us this week. We want to thank you all for listening. Please keep sending us your questions, comments and ideas. We want to hear from you.

Karam: If you are a fan of the podcast, please consider donating via Patreon. Doesn't matter which amount, everything helps. The link to our Patreon page is in the show notes. Thank you.

Fritz: Before we go, we want to take a moment to thank the nonprofit organization, Adalmaz, for their help circulating our recent Arabic episode. Adalmaz's aim is to seek justice for the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity through legal means. They seek to identify the perpetrators of these crimes through their online platform, to present them to national and international courts. They make every effort to protect the privacy of those who provide them with information and to guarantee the confidentiality of the information that is shared with them. Have a look at their website and the Facebook group if you want. You can find them in the show notes.

Karam: Next Week, we'll be back with an episode about the latest developments in Koblenz.

Fritz: See you then.

Karam: See you.


Pauline: Branch 251 is created produced and hosted by Karam Shoumali and Fritz Streiff, production assistance by me, Pauline Peek. Hannah el-Hitami is our court reporter. This podcast is listener-supported. You can help keeping it going by subscribing, rating, reviewing, sharing it with your friends, and by becoming a patron of the show via Patreon. You can find a link to our Patreon page in the show notes. Thank you for your support.