Friday, May 15, 2015

Murder incorporated - Investigators prepare a legal case against Syria’s regime

In its edition last Tuesday, The Guardian published an article describing efforts to collect material and bring senior officials in Syria to trial for crimes committed during the uprising there.

According to the British daily, “A three-year operation to smuggle official documents out of Syria has produced enough evidence to indict President Bashar al-Assad and 24 senior members of his regime, according to the findings of an international investigative commission.”

Those who have been secretly amassing information on regime involvement in the widespread murder of their countrymen may, ultimately, do the most harm to the Assad regime. Like the photographer Caesar, who brought to light the starvation, torture and killing of some 11,000 prisoners, the proof they are gathering will be difficult for foreign governments to ignore.

According to The Guardian, of the 50 investigators who have smuggled regime documents out of Syria, one has been killed while several have been detained and tortured. Not surprisingly, the regime feels most uneasy with such people, who quietly and tenaciously are exposing its best-kept secrets.

It is a paradox that dictatorships with not the slightest regard for judicial practice or independence feel most threatened by legal cases against them. That’s because such regimes thrive on their ability to exploit the unknown; to maintain fear in their societies by ensuring that no light is ever shined on their most fearsome actions. The unknown generates far greater terror than what is known, and the Assad regime has applied that rule to great effect for the past 45 years.

That is why, for instance, Bashar was so adamant about undermining the formation of a special tribunal to try the assassins of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A little-known episode, leaked to the French daily Le Monde and published in June 2007, is highly revealing in this regard.

At a 24 April 2007 meeting in Damascus between Assad and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Syrian president warned Ban against establishing the tribunal, doing his best impersonation of John Gotti: “Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country’s] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.” Assad went on to caution that the instability would get worse if the special tribunal were established, as this “might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea.”

That Assad made an implicit reference to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Hariri assassination (since why else would Sunnis and Shiites enter into conflict?) showed the depth of his anxiety. The president was willing to hint at the party’s role to derail the court, fearing its work might also uncover Syrian responsibility. No wonder Hezbollah doesn’t trust Assad.

Assad’s efforts failed. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon went ahead anyway and the exchange was likely leaked initially by someone in Ban’s entourage to embarrass Assad. The Syrian president’s sensitivity is why those who claim his regime cares little about the tribunal don’t know what they’re talking about.

If there is documentary evidence pointing to crimes by the Syrian regime, it would have implications for Assad’s allies—namely Russia and Iran. Even as they clamor Assad’s innocence, such information could shift the nature of their interactions with other states. In the Hariri assassination, for instance, Russia supported a UN investigation of the crime, and while it did not vote in favor of Resolution 1757, which established the special tribunal, it chose not to veto it either.

Assad’s worry is that if he ever has to leave Syria, he would find himself cornered by international justice. Nor, if his regime falls, might his allies have the same impetus to protect him as they do today. Doors will close, and while Assad may always find refuge with one gangster or another, it is not his ambition to live the remainder of his life in Pyongyang or Moscow, where the destinies of the regimes may one day take a sharp turn.

With respect to the documents currently being collected on Assad’s crimes, the situation is more complex. There is no tribunal to indict the Syrian leader, largely because Russia will veto any recourse to the International Criminal Court or the creation of an ad hoc court. The body gathering the information—the Commission for International Justice and Accountability—is hoping that once it has files on the Assad regime, the burden of the evidence will generate momentum that Russia cannot stop.

Whether such a calculation is justified or not will have to be seen. But dictatorships are usually very good record-keepers. When great crimes occur, everyone strives to ensure that responsibilities are clearly delineated so as to avoid being accused of something that someone else may have ordered. Assad may one day pay a heavy price for such meticulousness.

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