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New evidence reveals Assad's deliberate national policy of mass killing and torture

Bashar al-Assad (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

A group called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) has uncovered extensive documentation showing that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was personally involved in ordering torture on a nearly industrial scale, according to a new story in the New Yorker by Ben Taub.

CIJA has led a years-long effort to build war crimes charges against Assad, which involved working with Syrians to smuggle out hundreds of thousands of internal documents. They've put together a 400-page legal brief accusing Assad of what Taub describes as "a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty."

The investigation focused on a Syrian body called the Central Crisis Management Cell, which Assad created in May 2011 shortly after protests began. It developed a strategy, which Assad approved, to torture and kill dissidents across the country.

"In hundreds of witness interviews, the CIJA found consistent patterns in interrogation practices across all branches of the security agencies," Taub reports.

In one representative story, dissident Mazen al-Hamada describes his treatment at the hands of an interrogator named Suhail:

Suhail’s assistants told Hamada that if he admitted to carrying weapons he would be released. He didn’t confess, so they cracked four of his ribs. At that point, he agreed that he had been armed with a hunting rifle, and they let him down. But, to better suit terrorism charges, Suhail wanted the confession to include a Kalashnikov. Hamada refused, so, he said, "they stripped me out of my underwear and brought a plumbing clamp," of the kind typically used to moderate pressure in hoses.

"They put it on my penis, and started tightening it." Hamada recalled Suhail asking, "Are you going to admit it, or shall I cut it off?" Hamada agreed that he had carried a Kalashnikov, so Suhail released the clamp and asked how many clips of ammunition Hamada had carried. "How many clips do you want me to have?" Hamada asked. Suhail reminded him that he had to confess on his own, so Hamada said, "I had five bullets." That wasn’t good enough, Suhail told him: "I need two magazines." The torture escalated until Hamada confessed to everything they asked.

We've heard stories like this before from Syria. But what's critical about the CIJA's work is it demonstrates that this was systemic, ordered by Assad and leading deputies.

Individual interrogators were often leery about the brutality they were ordered to engage in, and were kept in line by the threat of being tortured themselves.

"The final line of the Crisis Cell’s targeting policy ordered the heads of security branches to 'periodically supply the National Security Bureau with the names of security agents who are irresolute or unenthusiastic,'" Taub reports.

So torture in Syria isn't a matter of a few bad apples in the security services. It was a deliberate policy, signed off on at the top levels of government, to crush the Syrian uprising using ultraviolence. If the International Criminal Court is ever enabled to put Assad on trial (a huge if), this evidence could end up playing a potentially significant role.

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