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War Crimes Investigators Secretly Build Cases Against Syrian Officials

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's go next to a story about documenting human rights violations in Syria. In the current issue of The New Yorker, Ben Taub writes about a secretive team of war crimes investigators building a case against Syrian officials who have signed off on detaining and interrogating anyone who poses a threat to President Bashar al-Assad. Here is one activist Taub interviewed, Mazen al-Hamada, who organized local protests. Through an interpreter, he described being tortured until he confessed to things he hadn't done.

MAZEN AL-HAMADA: (Through interpreter) He says, how many clips did you have? I tell them, how many - how many clips do you want me to have? He says, you're the one that has to confess. I said I had five bullets.

MONTAGNE: And those are clips for, of course, a Kalashnikov rifle, which he says he never owned. Ben Taub joins us now from our New York bureau. Good morning.

BEN TAUB: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

MONTAGNE: Now, this is a private organization which has taken up the enormous task of dealing with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that have been smuggled out of Syria. Give us a description of what's happening there.

TAUB: Sure. So this is an organization called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. And it was formed in 2012 specifically in response to the jurisdictional vacuum for the widespread systematic criminality in Syria. So basically the founder, who had served on - as an investigator for several international criminal tribunals, his name's Bill Wiley. And he launched an organization figuring that, you know, because the process of gathering evidence and organizing into cases is purely operational, he could do it without - before the international community has sort of garnered the political will to even prosecute it.

MONTAGNE: And you write that it's insiders there in Syria who are leaking these details and have been for years.

TAUB: So there is a high-level insider. He was a mole working in Assad's highest-level security committee in Damascus. And he supplied his files to the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. But the overwhelming number of documents - about 600,000 pages - they've actually smuggled out themselves through extremely high-risk operations. As rebels took over patches of territory in 2012 and '13, they would have investigators on the ground who would then go in to security intelligence facilities and box up those documents, wrap them up and then when possible smuggle them out of the country. And they take them back to an office in Europe where a team of lawyers and analysts pours through them. And through this work they have been able to trace the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a policy devised by Assad's highest-level security committee, approved by the president himself and then implemented through mid and lower-level regime operatives who then reported on the success of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus.

MONTAGNE: And so you write about a secret security committee. It's called the Central Crisis Cell - I believe that's nearly its full name - which is one reason why they can get these documents because this is very well-documented by the Syrian government.

TAUB: Yeah exactly. The Central Crisis Management Cell had around a dozen members, all personally appointed by Assad right at the beginning of the war - or not even war, it was when it was, you know, the earliest protest in March 2011. And they were the heads of the ministry of interior, it was the minister of defense, the heads of the security intelligence apparatus - all of whom are long-time Assad dynasty confidants routinely shuffled between these high-level positions. And each of them presides over their own chain of command. And so when they came to decisions that then they passed through a courier to Assad and he signed off on them, they would then pass them through, you know, seven or eight parallel chains of command so that there was a guarantee that they would be implemented. And then you have these correspondences...

MONTAGNE: Right.

TAUB: ...Being passed back to Damascus saying, yes, we are...

MONTAGNE: Right.

TAUB: ...Fulfilling your orders.

MONTAGNE: All of which aiming for the time when the war is over and...

TAUB: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: ...Charges can be brought. Well, thank you very much.

TAUB: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Ben Taub's latest piece for The New Yorker is entitled "The Assad Files." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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