Syrian dissident photographer Cesar wins human rights award

Syrian dissident photographer Cesar wins human rights award
Cesar smuggled 50,000 photographs of prisoners tortured to death by the Syrian regime out of the country - providing a cache of criminal evidence against Assad.
3 min read
26 September, 2016
Cesar smuggled photographs of corpses of Syrian dissidents imprisoned by Assad's regime [HRW]

A Syrian army defector who fled the country with 50,000 graphic photos of detainees tortured and maimed in government prisons has been presented with an international human rights award.

The cache of photos, showing emaciated bodies and people with their eyes gouged out, was smuggled out of Syria in 2013, providing a dossier of crimes allegedly committed by Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The former military photographer, known only as Cesar, is now in hiding, having risked his life to make the images public.

The Nuremberg International Human Rights Award 2017 praised the bravery of the former officer, who "suffered immensely, seeing and experiencing this every day".

At the start of the civil war in 2011, Cesar was ordered to photograph the corpses of Syrian dissidents interrogated in military hospitals as well as formal and secret detention centres.

His mission was to provide photo evidence to the authorities who would then produce death certificates showing falsified causes of death.

The photos were also used by intelligence officers as evidence of having fulfilled their duties.

Cesar secretly copied the images and fled Syria in July 2013.

In January 2014, they were published online by Human Rights Watch, which confirmed the authenticity of the images in a report, If the Dead Could Speak. Mass Deaths and Torture in Syria’s Detention Facilities.

The report of an enquiry led by three former chief prosecutors of international criminal tribunals published in the same month confirmed that Cesar’s evidence was "reliable and could safely be acted upon in any subsequent judicial proceedings".

The chairman, Desmond De Silva, described the cache as "the smoking gun" showing proof of "industrial-scale" killing by the Syrian regime.

Cesar and his colleagues have been driven by a desire to ensure that there is no impunity for documented human rights crimes

French prosecutors opened a preliminary inquiry in September 2015, into alleged crimes committed by the Syrian government between 2011 and 2013, largely based on Cesar's evidence.

The Nuremberg award’s citation announced on Monday said: "In the Syrian civil war, extreme human rights violations have been committed by all sides of the conflict.

"Since 2011, according to the report by Amnesty International of August 2016, over 17,700 people are said to have been killed in Syrian prisons alone.

"Cesar and his colleagues have been driven by a desire to ensure that there is no impunity for documented human rights crimes, incurring major risks."

The jury also recognised the "determination and tenacity" of French investigative journalist, Garance Le Caisne, who tracked down Cesar after months of research to interview him.

The recordings of the conversation and of further interviews with former prisoners were the basis for the book Code Name Caesar: In the Centre of the Syrian Machinery of Death.

The New Arab published four excepts from the book, released in October 2015.
Cesar now lives in hiding in northern Europe and will not be able to receive the award in person.

The Nuremberg accolade is awarded every two years to individuals or groups who have committed themselves to human rights, sometimes at considerable personal risk.