Answering Ambassador Ford on Syria

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By Brian Tettodoro

Feb. 24. The publication of Amnesty International's recent report documenting the mass executions that are taking place in Saidnaya prison in Syria has generated a torrent of responses from the Syria Extermination-Denial band.

One of them, broadcast on the Russian Sputnik channel spin-off "Hard facts" has veteran Assad cheerleader John Wight interviewing former British ambassador to Syria Peter Ford, a figure whose credentials might appear to give him some credibility.

In the space of some 11 minutes, both parties managed to avoid engaging with the detailed analysis and evidence provided in the 48-page Report. Instead they produced a lot of flannel about the sins of Amnesty and the ominous "timing" of the Amnesty report they don't have the courage to openly assert that Amnesty released the report in order to sabotage the Syrian peace process - probably because it's so patently absurd - but the dog whistles are there aplenty for their intended audience.) If we strip away all this padding we are left with four objections to the Amnesty case

*** All Amnesty's witnesses are anonymised
*** Saidnaya could not possibly hold the number of prisoners Amnesty claim
*** The Amnesty report relies on the "discredited" Caesar torture documentation.
*** Some business about Amnesty getting the date of Saydnaya's emergence as the country's main political prison wrong

We can pass over the fourth it's trivial and more suggestive of clutching at straws than anything else (although it is useful to have Ford's confirmation that the large Saydnaya complex has been Syria's "main political prison" "for "many years" before 2006, acknowledging the long and continuous history of political repression in the country.

On the first of the remaining points: Of course the witnesses insist on being anonymous - if they weren't they would face the prospect of themselves or family members joining the victims whose fate they are testifying to. Wight comments that the Amnesty report "would not stand scrutiny in a court of law". But no one is in a court of law. Amnesty is aware of the identity of its witnesses, and has interviewed them, they have no obligation to expose them to mortal danger just to meet some spurious test of veracity set up by Wight.

On the second point, Ford says that "none of the authors of the report have actually been to Saydnaya, but I have - I had occasion to go to Saydnaya numerous times". However, this dramatic claim to eyewitness authority quickly evaporates when he adds "I did not enter the prison". (So what exactly he was doing there? It seems an unlikely sightseeing destination)

Despite his rather limited (if oft repeated) engagement with Saydnaya, Ford claims that his sighting of the building allows him to assert that it is "literally impossible" for it to hold the 10-20 000 prisoners that Amnesty claims. His assessment is that it could hold "only about one-tenth that number".

It's possible to test that assertion by calculating the dimensions of Saydnaya from satellite photos. The main Saydnaya "red building" comprises 3 wings, each of which is about 90 x 20 metres, with. 3 - 4 floors. giving it a total capacity of about 18 000 square metres. The second "white building" where both detentions and executions take place, seems to be on two levels, adding another 4000 square metres of capacity. After allowing for essential functional space - offices, torture chambers, staff canteens, gallows it would seem reasonable to estimate that something like 20 000 square metres is available for detention facilities. If Ford's estimate that Saydnaya only holds 1000-2000 prisoners were true, then that would make it a very comfortable place indeed (it would meet the British Certified Normal Accommodation standard - something very few British prisons do.) But Saydnaya is in Damascus not Wandsworth, and very different rules apply there.

Intense overcrowding is a well-known feature of political prisons, an integral part of breaking prisoners' spirits. There is plenty of testimony from Syria, and from other counties, that densities of less than 1 square metre per prisoner are often imposed. Human Rights Watch has collected testimony of densities as high as 3 prisoners per square metre. That would allow Saydnaya to hold the numbers Amnesty suggests; and certainly their figures are far more realistic than Ford's. As Ford says, "when you get this basic fact wrong, you have to question the veracity of the rest".

Point three: Ford suggests that Amnesty's case is seriously undermined by their reference to the well-known "Caesar" portfolio of torture photographs, commenting that they have been discredited by the work of "a very good investigative journalist by the name of Rick Sterling, and also by Human Rights Watch. Sterling, however, is not an "investigative journalist" of any standard but a pro- regime publicist, whose article on the Caesar portfolio is a clumsy set of misrepresentations of the evidence and its interpretation. Ford lifts his account of the HRW review of the Caesar material straight from Sterling, claiming that it established that "46% of the photos showed dead Syrian soldiers, victims of car bombs, and other jihadist violence, and there was no evidence that the others were the victims of any particular form of detention." This is a rampant distortion of HRW's finding: true, they discovered that as a forensic photographer for the Syrian military authorities, "Caesar" was assigned to take several types of photographs: detainees who died in custody; dead soldiers and others who died in violent attacks; and photographs of the sites of the attacks: 54% of his photos were of dead detainees; 46% fell into the other two categories. As HRW noted, the range of Caesar's photographs confirmed him to be to be an official a forensic photographer, reinforcing his credibility.

Moreover, the different categories were clearly distinguishable, and HRW was able to carry out an analysis of the dead detainees which produced detailed evidence that they had either been killed or died of malnutrition. They documented 6786 detainee deaths, and were able to identify which branch of the security services was responsible for each case. They also managed to locate several relatives of the dead who were able to identify them, despite their physically degraded conditions. No one who has seen these photos - as I have - could doubt that they had died as "victims of a particular form of detention". In short, the HRW analysis demonstrates almost the exact opposite of what Sterling (and Ford) claim.

If this feeble mish-mash is the best Assad's "counsels for the defence" can muster, then no one with a functioning intellect is going to take them seriously.

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And Amnesty International itself skewers those who doubt its professionalism and bias in a general response here.

For Human Rights Watch report on the Caesar photos click here.

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