Members of the UN Security Council fell silent Tuesday after viewing a series of ghastly photographs of dead Syrians killed in the ongoing civil war, 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, which has been going on since March 2011 and has claimed more than 150,000 lives.
The council members saw more than the 10 photos publicly released in January on the eve of the "Geneva 2" peace talks 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 showed 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 "lacking objectiveness and professionalism" and said some of the people were militants killed in battle and others were killed by militant groups.
Prosecutor says images show 'systematic killing'
Among the new photos was an image of at least a dozen bodies laid out on the floor of a warehouse, in the process of being wrapped 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, "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 UN 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 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 centimetres from the eye socket onto the ground beside the head.
Other bodies bore parallel marks that Hamilton said are 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 the torso. Forensic pathologist Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton said if the bruises had been sustained in a fight or combat where the individual was moving, they would not appear on the body in a regular pattern as they do in this case.
France wants International Criminal Court investigation
Crane said that these photos were "just the tip of the iceberg,” explaining the pictures come from just three of the 50 detention centres known to exist in the country.
The presentation at the Security Council was part of a process of documenting evidence of Syrian war crimes in the hope of eventually referring the perpetrators to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But because Syria never accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC, the only way a case can be opened while Assad is in power is for the Security Council to order a referral. Russia and China have used their veto power three times to block resolutions threatening sanctions on Syria.
Araud said France would gladly support a referral of all war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria — by the Assad regime or by the rebels — to the ICC if Russia or China allowed it.
A forensics team that examined the entire collection of images — taken by a former Syrian army photographer who fled the country — say that there are photos of at least 11,000 victims.
Almost all of the victims are men aged 20 to 40; only one woman was pictured, and she was clothed; and there were no children in the images.