The U.N. Security Council fell silent Tuesday after ambassadors viewed a series of ghastly photographs of dead Syrian civil war victims, France’s ambassador said. The pictures showed people who were emaciated, with their bones protruding, and some bearing the marks of strangulation and repeated beatings, and eyes having been gouged out.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud said the pall of silence lingered, and then questions slowly began about the credibility of the slides of the dead, who offer mute testimony to the savagery of a Syrian civil war in which more than 150,000 have died.
The council members were shown more than the 10 photos publicly released in January as part of a forensic investigation funded by the government of Qatar – a major backer of the opposition and one of the nations most deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. France, which hosted the presentation at the Security Council and a showing of the images afterward at a news conference, said they are evidence of war crimes by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The veracity of the photos could not be independently confirmed.
Syria’s Justice Ministry has dismissed the photos and accompanying report as “politicized and lacking objectiveness and professionalism,” a “gathering of images of unidentified people, some of whom have turned out to be foreigners.”
The ministry said some of the people were militants killed in battle and others were killed by militant groups.
Among the new photos was an image of at least a dozen bodies laid out on the floor of a warehouse, being wrapping in plastic sheets with men in military garb standing among them.
One of the authors of the report, former Sierra Leone Special Court prosecutor David M. Crane, said it was firm evidence of “industrialized systematic killing.”
“Bodies in, bodies out. It was a very systematic processing of human beings. They were laid out in a parking lot because there were too many to put into the morgue,” Crane said,
“They died in agony over months of starvation and torture, and then almost mercifully were executed,” Crane said. “Doesn’t this bring back some interesting images from Dachau, and Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen?” Crane observed, sitting in front of the grisly procession of photos projected behind him in a U.N. news conference.
“The gruesome images of corpses bearing marks of starvation, strangulation and beatings and today’s chilling briefing indicate that the Assad regime has carried out systematic, widespread and industrial killing. Nobody who sees these images will ever be the same,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said.
The photos were selected from among 55,000 images of tortured and slain Syrian war victims said to have been smuggled out of Syria.
The faces and genitals of victims were blurred in the photos “as a legal and ethical matter to protect the decency of the victims” and so that relatives of the dead would not recognize the bodies and learn of their murder through a news conference, forensic pathologist Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton. Identification numbers for the bodies were also blurred or blacked out, as were identifying marks on the bodies such birthmarks, scars or tattoos.
The savagery of the victims’ last moments was obvious. One photograph of a person’s face showed an eye gouged out, and a spray of blood that gushed a few inches from the eye socket onto the ground beside the head.
Other bodies bore parallel marks that Hamilton said is known to pathologists as a “tram-line bruise” caused by being struck with a rod. It leaves two parallel welts with a smooth space between them. One body had a series of such bruises up and down his torso. “In a fight or combat, the individual would be moving,” Hamilton said, so there would not be a regular pattern of stripes.