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The Investigators Who Risk Their Lives to Smuggle Incriminating Documents Out of Syria

The operatives must move their cargo, box-by-box, truckload-by-truckload, down perilous roads and across international borders.

by VICE News
Apr 8 2014, 12:57pm

Photo via the Syrian Commission for Accountability and Justice

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

By Jordan Fletcher and Alia Dharssi

The first time Ahmed was shot at by Syrian government forces he was outside Aleppo, driving in a car loaded with bags of incriminating documents. He could hear the gunfire aimed in his direction, the rounds passing close by in the dense night fog.

Before the war, Ahmed led a comfortable life as a Syrian lawyer in Kuwait. Then he got caught up in the early excitement of revolution. He joined the rallies in the southern Syrian city of Daraa in spring 2011 and watched as government security forces fired on unarmed protestors from rooftops. Demonstrators fell around him. The wounded were arrested, not taken to hospitals. He couldn’t return to his quiet life after that.

Now Ahmed — an alias used for his protection — manages 30 field operatives who scour the ravaged country looking for evidence of war crimes. Employed by the non-profit Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability (SCJA), they’ve been trained by Western lawyers to gather documents and locate witnesses who can connect high-level officials to massacres, sexual violence and torture.

“It’s a dangerous job,” Ahmed told us through a translator. “Our families are worried, but we are working for our country.”

Three years later, the war in Syria shows no signs of letting up. A dizzying collection of rebel groups, government, and affiliated forces vie for influence and control.

Accurate death counts are hard to come by, but even conservative estimates peg it at more than 100,000.

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The government regularly shells civilians from the air. Our first Skype interview with lawyer Yousuf Houran of the investigative outfit Justice was postponed after six barrel bombs landed near his family’s car in Aleppo, shattering windows and injuring his daughter with shrapnel.

For all their virtues, war crimes investigations have historically been bureaucratic efforts that proceeded only after conflicts have ended, long after alleged violations took place. In the interim, witnesses and perpetrators can disappear. Tangible evidence may go up in flames.

Rebel fighters claimed the seizure of Al Samra village in Lattakia on March 25, 2014.

From the start in Syria, local lawyers and activists didn’t want to sit on their hands.

While outside advocacy organizations such as Human Rights Watch have researched atrocities during past wars, Syria is the first time that small, private groups such as Justice and the SCJA are conducting full-fledged criminal investigations as a conflict still rages, according to SCJA head of operations William Wiley. Wiley worked in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, led investigations in Eastern Congo for the International Criminal Court and wrote Saddam Hussein’s defense brief.

Founded in May 2012 and advised by Westerners who, like Wiley, have been running international investigations and legal tribunals for the last two decades, the SCJA equips local field workers to gather evidence up to the exacting standards required for international criminal prosecutions.

The United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union have kicked in five million dollars this year to support the project.

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Before these investigators came on the scene, opposition groups affiliated with the rebel Free Syrian Army would often ransack a military or government intelligence facility, loot it for weapons and ammunition, and torch the place while dancing outside in the street, Wiley says. Then they’d post the entire affair on YouTube. In winter, reams of paperwork were burned as fuel to keep the fighters warm.

For SCJA staff, the eureka moment came when, watching the online video, they realized that proof of the regime’s misdeeds was being turned to ash.

So, brigade-by-brigade, they approached rebel groups and struck a deal. Now the fighters spare the documents and pass them on to SCJA field workers. They get how important those pages are, says Wiley.

“They just had to be sensitized.”

Coverage still remains spotty in Assad regime strongholds such as Damascus and the Islamist-controlled North.

The truly risky part comes only after the documents are in hand.

The operatives must move their cargo, box-by-box, truckload-by-truckload, down perilous roads and across international borders.

The process can take weeks, or even months. Along the way, they dodge government checkpoints and Shari-inspired rebels, who hold a dim view of Western notions of justice. “Those guys will cut off your head,” says Wiley. “Literally.”

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The human cost has been high.

SCJA investigators—men and women—have been captured and held for months by both government and Islamist forces. Two are still in government prison. Three have been shot and wounded, and a fourth was killed by unknown attackers while on mission in the North.

Ahmed hesitates when he talks about it.

Despite the risks, the SCJA has managed to transfer 300,000 pages to the organization’s secretive European headquarters. Over a quarter million more remain hidden in a network of safe houses across the country, waiting to be smuggled out.

The setup doesn’t come without its issues. While the NGO needs to stay neutral to maintain legitimacy, investigators depend on relatively moderate armed groups for access and security. How do you stay fair and balanced when you’re in bed with rebel factions that have themselves been accused of kidnappings, torture and executions?

“There’s a paradox, a contradiction even, at the root of what we do,” says Wiley. “We can’t do the work without alliances with the armed opposition.” In fact, only one of Ahmed’s ten field teams focuses on crimes by any of the armed opposition groups.

“It can be hard to investigate rebel violations,” Ahmed admits. “It’s a tricky situation.”

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Since those groups produce far fewer records than the government, they must rely largely on interviews with defectors and prisoners held by their rebel partners. But prisoners who’ve been “softened” by their captors present a legal and ethical red line that investigators dare not cross, and turncoats are rarely savory characters. Wiley’s spent a lot of time with killers in the course of his career.

If all else fails, there’s always the Internet, which offers a treasure trove of footage of combatants filming themselves in flagrante delicto. “The stupidity of the criminal mind, in Syria and elsewhere, has never ceased to amaze me,” says Wiley.

A courthouse building in central Aleppo was partially demolished in a huge explosion on March 19, 2014.

Once evidence is safely out of the country, legal analysts from across North America, Europe, and the Middle East pore over the paperwork and interview transcripts in search of patterns. They diagram command structures, linking atrocities committed by junior fighters to the leaders of government and other armed groups that ordered them.

If they can demonstrate that high-level commanders controlled detention centers where torture was widely used, for example, then they’ve made a case.

As it turns out, the Syrian regime keeps great records. A senior US administration official close to the project says that he’s rarely seen documentation of such high quality. “I wish we’d had this kind of information in Rwanda,” he says. “They’re able to show that certain incidents of mass killings were executed based on high-level communications.”

This is the stuff that successful prosecutions in the International Criminal Court, a specialized tribunal, or domestic courts can be built. It enables future prosecutors to move quickly without stopping to gather more evidence, says David Crane, an SCJA advisor and former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

But those prosecutions are likely years away, if indeed they happen at all, since any eventual Syrian peace deal could involve amnesty for top commanders. The alternative might be a truth commission that airs public grievances and helps dispel popular perceptions that the violence has been all one-sided.

Until then, the SCJA will preserve a record of the war’s misdeeds and build the capacity of Syrians to handle the cases themselves. Right or wrong, they believe in the power of public justice to help heal a nation’s wounds.

“We know that if there’s a good judicial system,” says Ahmed, “there will be stability.”