Regime Photos Said To Show Gruesome Killings In Syrian Prisons

Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, has seen photos obtained by Syria's opposition. A government photographer allegedly took them to document people killed in prisons.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we have some news today from the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council today considered a resolution on Syria. The resolution would have authorized the prosecution of Syrian war crimes by the International Criminal Court. But Syria's ally Russia vetoed that proposal, as did China. The U.S. diplomat who coordinates efforts for war crimes prosecutions had been expecting that bad news. We met Ambassador Stephen Rapp at the State Department yesterday. He said he wants to find some other way to prosecute.

AMBASSADOR STEPHEN RAPP: And I want to make it clear that the news shouldn't be, oh, there's not going to be accountability. No. The news is we're not going to get it at the ICC today. But we got to develop other alternatives to ensure that there's going to be justice for these crimes.

INSKEEP: The United States may press instead for a special tribunal, or even trials in assorted national courts. Rapp says he has seen new evidence of alleged brutality. It's a collection of photos obtained by Syria's opposition. A government photographer allegedly took them to document people who were killed in prisons. Only a few pictures have been published so far, but Ambassador Rapp says he has seen hundreds.

RAPP: This represents killing on an industrial scale, but not just killing - the most gruesome sorts of acts. The images that I've seen include men, but also women and children who have been brutally, brutally tortured and killed - people strangled, others that have clearly not been fed or been chained, whose, you know, whose expressions on their face show the pain of their last hours of life. What these images evidence is a pattern now of people being brought into jail and simply beaten and tortured and starved to death.

INSKEEP: When you say killing on an industrial scale, what comes into my head is the idea not just of abusive guards or excessive use of force, but a policy and a system to implement that policy. Is that what you mean?

RAPP: Well, I mean, the kind of images in which there are sequential numbers on - not just the prisoner numbers, the sequential numbers on each of the dead suggests an effort to physically record, you know, hundreds and then thousands of people that have been killed.

INSKEEP: You mean each photo has a number.

RAPP: Each photo has a number. So, it suggests, you know, a real effort to sort of show that we're killing these people and recording that killing. It's like the Nazis keeping track of the people that they've killed in the Holocaust.

INSKEEP: How reliable is the chain of custody of these photographs?

RAPP: Well, you know, we're doing everything that we can to authenticate it, obviously. But we're talking here about a line of material that's almost impossible to imagine that it could be created out of whole cloth and images of people, human beings, with very real blood and very real wounds in images in the hundreds and thousands.

INSKEEP: When you're talking about the prosecution of an ousted government, that would be one thing. In this case, we're talking about the potential prosecution of members of a government that is still in power, with which the United States is collaborating on things like disposing of chemical weapons. Do those diplomatic considerations and political considerations of the United States affect the way that war crimes prosecutors can proceed?

RAPP: Well, all I can do is talk about the past. I mean, in 1999, we had an international criminal tribunal for Yugoslavia that had been established with our strong support. And Milosevic was indicted while he was still sitting in power, at a time when we were in conflict with him over Kosovo. And many thought, well, you know, this will prevent peace from ever occurring here. It happened in May of 1999. By June of '99, he had stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, withdrawn his forces. By September of 2000, he couldn't steal enough votes to remain in power.

And I was in The Hague on the 26th of June when a helicopter flew in bringing him to custody and to trial. My predecessor, David Crane, at a special court for Sierra Leone, indicted Charles Taylor in March of 2003 when he was sitting in the executive mansion as president of Liberia. So, they were individuals in power and prosecuting them, even while the conflict was going on, even while they were sitting in a presidential mansion, actually helped to establish peace in the countries in which they were located. So, in my view, justice is essential for peace.

INSKEEP: When you meet with Syrians, do you feel confident enough to tell them that however it happens, justice will be done?

RAPP: Yes, I do. It may not happen immediately, but that expectation is there.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Rapp, thanks very much.

RAPP: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Stephen J. Rapp is the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes and head of the State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice.

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