Prosecutors in Paris have opened a preliminary inquiry into Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime for alleged crimes against humanity. The investigation was launched earlier this month following a recommendation by the French foreign ministry.
The ministry handed prosecutors at least 45,000 graphic photographs of mutilated bodies, which were smuggled out of Syria in July 2013 by a forensic photographer who's known by the code name "Caesar" and has now fled Syria.
"The French authorities received thousands of images from the Caesar files," France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius announced in a statement. "Given the seriousness of the situation, I decided to forward these pictures to the French justice system, so that it can use them and decide what action to take, including any criminal proceedings."
According to French radio station Europe 1 — which broke the news of the probe Wednesday — the foreign ministry asked prosecutors to launch an inquiry on September 10. Speaking to VICE News Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Paris public prosecutor's office said that the investigation had been opened by the war crimes and crimes against humanity division of the Paris High Court, which then assigned the investigation to the Directorate-General of the National Gendarmerie (DGGN), a military police force that answers to the interior ministry.
The existence of the 45,000 photos came to light with the release of a report written by a team of former international prosecutors and experts. Dubbed the Caesar Report, the document was commissioned to establish the credibility of the photos as evidence of the Syrian regime's systematic use of torture and execution against detainees. "The photographs from the Caesar report … attest to the systematic cruelty of Bashar al-Assad's regime," Fabius said in his statement.
Warning: This document contains graphic images.
News of the probe came as international heads of states gathered in New York City for the UN General Assembly to discuss, among other things, what role to give the Assad regime in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
Thirty of Caesar's photos — including gruesome pictures of men, women, children, and elderly civilians — were displayed at the UN headquarters in New York in March 2015.
Assad's forensic photographer
The 45,000 photographs, which were all taken between 2011 and 2013, show the mutilated bodies of approximately 11,000 people.
Caesar, the photographer, had been working for the Syrian military police for about 10 years, photographing crime scenes and accidents, before he was tasked with a new mission. In March 2011, he started taking pictures of detainees who had been tortured to death or executed in the government's prisons. According to Emadeddin Rachid, one of the people who helped Caesar smuggle the images out of Syria, the pictures were included in the prisoners' death certificates and handed to officials to prove their orders had been carried out.
The photos were smuggled out of Syria on flash drives over the course of several months by Caesar and his friends. Caesar and his family fled Syria in 2013 and is currently living in Europe under tight security. The photographer's whereabouts remain unknown, for fear of reprisals.
Freelance journalist Garance Le Caisne — reportedly the only journalist to have met Caesar in person — has written about the photographer and his gruesome archives in a book scheduled for release on October 7.
Titled Operation Caesar, the 250-page book combines a first-person narrative by Caesar and testimonies by former detainees interviewed by Le Caisne. The book also includes maps locating detention centers, images of official arrest warrants and death certificates, and a table charting the injuries photographed by Caesar — including lacerations, signs of electrocution, etc…
Missing from the book, however, are the photographs themselves. "They are so powerful and their ability to shock is such that you might be unable to then read the survivors' testimony," explained Le Caisne. "And they must be heard."
Interviewed by Le Caisne for French weekly L'Obs, Caesar said that, "The book will show Bashar al-Assad's true colors, those of a dictator that has caused a lot of bloodshed. The book is like a message to the diplomats and politicians who are today trying to get closer to him and renew contact with him."
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Photo of French foreign ministry via Chaperon rouge007/Wikimedia Commons