Exhibition of Syria torture photos shows 'depravity' of Assad regime

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

A U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum director says graphic photos showing the corpses of Syrian torture victims reveal a "systematic killing machine" that is reminiscent of the images from Nazi concentration camps.

In a chilling and potentially controversial exhibit that opens on Wednesday, the museum will put on public display for the first time photographs — smuggled out of Syria by a regime defector — that show the emaciated and burned bodies of suspected dissidents believed to have been killed in government detention centers.

The photos demonstrate the "human indifference and depravity of the Assad regime," said Cameron Hudson, a former White House national security official under President George W. Bush who now serves as director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

The photos show "that this is methodical, that it's organized and that it is a campaign that is going on across the country," said Hudson in an interview with Yahoo News. "What the Assad regime would have you believe is these are all combatants, that these are battlefield deaths, and that they're fighting a civil war. And some of that may be true.

"But when you look at these photographs, and you look at how they are … classified, by an internal classification system, you can only come to the conclusion that this is a deliberate and systematic attempt to eradicate enemies of the state."

The photos, part of a trove of 27,000 such pictures now in the hands of the FBI and State Department, have become crucial evidence for human rights groups and some U.S. officials who want to bring war crimes charges against the Assad regime. Stephen J. Rapp, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes, told Yahoo News this week that they amounted to a "smoking gun" in efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable for its actions.

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: (Photo combination by Yahoo News, Photos by SANA/AP Photo, Courtesy of The Caesar Team/Coalition for a Democratic Syria.)

But in highlighting the photos, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is partly federally funded, might be seen as wading into a sensitive foreign policy debate about how the U.S. government responds to such images. President Obama last month announced an aggressive bombing campaign targeting the militants of the Islamic State — bitter and barbaric enemies of Syrian President Bashar Assad who U.S officials believe are also a threat to the government of Iraq as well as potentially the United States.

U.S.-backed Syrian rebel groups have repeatedly complained that by restricting its targets to the Islamic State, the White House strategy may end up strengthening Assad, degrading one of his main enemies and solidifying the control of his brutal dictatorship over Syria.

But Hudson says displaying the photos is in keeping with the core mission of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, whose motto — emblazoned on a banner outside its entrance — proclaims: "Never Again."

"One of the things that strikes us, and that we hear an awful lot, is that 'If only we had known more about what was going on during the Holocaust. If only we'd known what was going on in Rwanda,'" Hudson said.

"Time and again" during the Nazi era, "we saw, you know, brave witnesses coming out of concentration camps in Germany, in Poland, and escaping to the West — to tell President Roosevelt, to tell senior government officials," Hudson said.

"And having that information not get acted on, I think, is one of the great regrets of that period," Hudson added. "We did not want to be a party to having that kind of story retold in our lifetime."

As museum officials acknowledge, the photos are painfully difficult to look at. They show corpses, some of them lined up in a warehouse, many appearing to be victims of starvation, their ribs protruding from emaciated bodies.

Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) (C) speaks as Syrian Army defector Caesar, (in a blue hooded jacket) who has smuggled out of Syria more than 50,000 photographs that document the torture and execution of more than 10,000 dissidents, listens through an interpreter during a briefing before House Foreign Affairs Committee July 31, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Others, not on display but among the archive obtained by the museum, show "electrocution ... eyes being gouged out ... just a variety of really, really, horrific acts," said Hudson.

The defector who brought the photos to the West — using thumb drives that he concealed in his shoes — is a former Syrian military police photographer who goes by the code name of Caesar, given to him by the Syrian resistance.

According to the account he has given investigators, he had headed a team assigned to photograph the bodies of Syrians brought to a military hospital after they had died at one of three detention centers around Damascus.

After faking his death and escaping from Syria, Caesar — with the aid of Syrian rebel groups — last July came to Washington, where he met with U.S. officials, testified (wearing a hood) before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and paid a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

"He is someone who could no longer live with himself and live with being a witness and in some respects an accomplice to what the regime was doing," said Hudson, who met with Caesar during his visit. 

What motivated Caesar to defect — and bring with him his damning evidence?

"When it became personal to him," said Hudson. "He started recognizing people from his village" whom he knew were not "combatants" as the Assad regime had claimed, but victims who were in some cases "women and children and elderly."

As Hudson and other museum officials see it, Caesar acted "with a great deal of heroism" even though "he doesn't feel like a hero."

"He's overwrought with guilt that he's been part of this regime," Hudson said. "And I think he's really struggling to make sense of what he saw."