Wed 16 September 2020:
He personally saw the dead body of a murdered woman, embracing her slaughtered infant, a scene that made him fall unconscious at the time.
A former gravedigger has given horrific testimony regarding war crimes in Syria to a German court, describing mass killing on a scale reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
For the first time, the court has agreed,in its 30 and 31 court sessions, to interrogate a fully protected witness. He showed up with a masked face, and all his personal information has been kept confidential to protect his family and relatives in Syria. It was a shocking testimony with details recounted for the very first time.
The pictures were smuggled out of Syria between 2011 and mid-2013. The exhibition at the UN consists of two dozen images selected from the roughly 55,000 photographs taken in Syria by a former military police photographer – some showing eye gougings, strangulation and long-term starvation – as the conflict in Syria enters its fifth year. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
The witness, named Z 30.07.2019, began his testimony at 11:00 am; 90 minutes after announcing the start of his first session of two scheduled on 09.09.2020 and 10.09.2020. Defense attorneys rejected,at first, the idea of covering the witness’ face. However, after long deliberations between the judges and the attorneys, the court finally decided that the witness has the right to keep a mask on his face.
This uncomfortable beginning has stressed out the witness, who already suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. The witness had previously collapsed during a criminal police investigation in 2019, and he had to be transferred to the hospital.This time also, the judge had to end the session abruptly due to the witness’ high pressure, and his inability to stand.
Who is the witness?
Interrogations began about the witness’ daily work while he was in Syria.He said that he was a civil worker who buries dead bodies before the beginning of the Syrian revolution. In October 2011, two officers gathered about 10 civil workers and assigned the witness as their supervisor. Since then, they have been compelled to go to military hospitals where they would find a large refrigerator truck or two waiting for them.
They would be taken then to certain locations where they would burry dead bodies in mass graves. The witness told the court that burials always took place early in the mornings between 4 to 9 and that he has worked non-stop with these officers from 2011 to 2017 without a single leave.
The witness not only mentioned military hospitals, but also said that he would go to civilian hospitals and Sednaya prison.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Shocking: A second set of pictures from the 55,000 photograph dossier showing alleged victims of torture and systematic killings in government-run prisons in Syria has been released.
He explained that one refrigerator truck is longer than 11 meters, and that they would put 500 to 700 bodies each time and sometimes less. He recalls numbers because the officers always gave them orders to record the number of corpses from each military security branch, and then count the total. He gave an example: Palestine Branch 100 corpses, Al-Arbaeen Branch 50 corpses.
The witness could not tell which security branch had the largest number of bodies, but he heard the officers often talking about the activity and the competition among security branches on certain days, saying for example, (State Security branches are active today), which means that the bodies arriving from there are more than other security branches.
The witness and the rest of the workers were not allowed to communicate together or use their cell phones.“In the beginning, I did not know what my duties were. The officers would never share information. But after 5 months the officers began to trust us and started to tell us more about our tasks,” he said.
The witness mentioned the names of the hospitals from which the bodies were taken: Harasta and Tishreen Military Hospitals, (Tishreen Hospital, he said, includes the corpses of Mazzeh 601 Military Hospital, because it is a small hospital and does not accommodate that number of bodies), Al Mouwasat and Al Mujtahid Civilian Hospitals.
Regarding the civilian hospitals, he said that someone from inside Al-Mujtahid Hospital had told him that they not only receive bodies from security branches, but also carry out death orders inside the hospital.
Regarding the number of times of transferring dead bodies, he said that there would be three or four burials during the week; once or twice a week for the military hospitals, two or three times a month for the civilian hospitals, and two more times a week for Sednaya prison, at a rate of two to three cars for each transfer.
Mass graves are everywhere
The witness also spoke about burial locations, which he identified in two mainspots: Najha- about 15 km from Damascus – Ithad been mentioned previously by another witness (All information has been documented with illustrations of the mass graves in our report on session13 and session 14, on 24.06.2020 and 25.06.2020).
Al-Qatifah – mentioned for the first time during this trial –it is 35 km from Damascus. Mass Graves
He said that bothsitesare military properties, and that as civilians they needed an official permit and a vehicle that could pass through all military checkpoints without being stopped.
He said that all security branches have been sending bodies to these twosites, except the Fourth Division of Maher Al-Assad, where the bodies are buried at Mezzeh Military Airport under the runway, and the Air Force Intelligence branch; the bodies are buried inside the same branch, and civilian workers are not allowed to enter these two sites.Only one civilian worker digs graves,it happened that he was a friend of the witness and he was the one who shared this information with him.
As for the size of the mass graves in the areas of Najha and Al-Qatifa, the witness said that the area of one pit may reach 5000 square meters, with a depth of up to six meters. The pit is not closed once, but in batches, part of it is back filled according to the number of bodies in one batch, and so on until it is completely filled with the continued flow of corpses arriving from security branches. They called the pit “the line”.
Some lines were filled after twenty burials, and others required fifty or sixty burials, depending on the size of the line, as he explained.
“When the refrigerator door was opened, a heavy smell would emanate like a gas bombs dead bodies had been kept inside for a long time. They would stack them in batches until the truck is fully filled.”
For this reason, the witness justified not burying the bodies arriving from the branches personally. He would stand 20 meters away and watch workers as they throw the bodies into the pit until they reach the stacked corpses at the end of the fridge. Corpses would be filled with mucus due to decomposition or worms, and due to the lack of air inside the refrigerator and storage for a long time.
However, the witness said that he had personally buried the corpses of Sednaya prison with the workers, “They did not smell because they were fresh corpses. The officers told us that they had been executed on the same day. Executions would often begin at midnight, and burial stake place at 4 in the morning. I saw the marks of the rope wrapped on their necks and the signs of torture as well.
They would usually be in handcuffs with numbers and codes written on stickers placed on the foreheads and chests of the bodies. It happened once that one of them was still not dead, but breathing his last, so the officer ordered that the bulldozer to pass over him.”
Seeing this regularly for many years has damaged the witness’ sanity, “The smell dwelt in our noses for all these years. We used to feel it even if we were at home or anywhere else.The pictures of the corpses in my head alone were enough to stop eating or drinking for several days.They still haunt me like nightmares and deprive me of sleep. I live in constant terror;I have permanent blood sugar and blood pressure disorders.” The witness added.
Corpses of women and children…No cemeteries for women
He also spoke about workers telling him about the bodies of women and children – male and female as well – how officers had refused their request to allow them to bury women in designated places, and how rejection has sometimes turned into threats of arrest and torture. He told the court that he personally saw the dead body of a murdered woman, embracing her slaughtered infant, a scene that made him fall unconscious at the time.
Regarding the status of the bodies arriving from the branches, the witness said, the workers told him that the features of the faces were almost absent, which in their opinion was the result of using chemicals such as acid, because It is impossible for corpses to be eroded in this way as a result of death or only as a result of torture.
They also told him about the signs of torture spread all over the bruised bodies, “There were blue marks,red marks, and black marks on the corpses, fingernails and toenails had been extracted, and in one case the penis had been cut off.”
The witness also informed the judges of other secret burials they were taken to.They were not documented and had no numbers.Those burials would start at midnight,during which there would be high ranked officers; brigadier general and higher,besides armed soldiers.
The witness was asked about his administrative work with regard to documents.He said that the numbers of bodies and branches are recorded on lists during the transfer and burial, and that they would record what the officers tell them to.After the burial, an officer takes those lists to his workplace where he would share office with the witness and would make him write down the codes and numbers.
Codes refer to a certain branch known only by them and numbers for the number of bodies.The witness writes those details in the death record, and then the officer places the record in a locked safe.He would then take the lists and print them out to hand them over either to his manager at work or to an in-charge officer at a higher rank. Mass Graves
The witness also stated that the officers did not provide any protection to the civilian workers, except for gloves, an apron and regular masks.The thing that caused serious illnesses for some of them and two of them had died.
Regarding the judges’ question about Al-Khatib branch, whether it sends bodies as well, the witness said that all security branches had sent bodies, about fifteen in number, Al-Khatib was among them. He said that the number of corpses during the six years in which he worked have reached one to one and a half million corpses, then he said: “Maybe 2, 3, or even 4 million corpses, I don’t know, but the number is very large.”
As for the share of the State Security branches (Al-Arbaeen Branch, Al-Khatib and the General Intelligence Department), according to his estimation, it was up to 50,000 corpses between October 2011 and the end of 2012.After that the number from State Security branches has become 25,000 corpses annually distributed as follows: Al-Khatib 10,000 corpses Al-Arbaeen Branch, 10,000 corpses, and the General Intelligence Department, 5,000 corpses.He said that the Al-Khatib Branch used to send the bodies to both civilian and military hospitals.
During the second session, several Google maps were displayed for Al-Qatifah and Najha areas.However, the witness was unable to locate the graves either because they were devoid of any landmarks or were not available in Arabic. Still, he said that he could see Ebla Hotel from the southern Najha cemetery.
During the second session, defense attorneys tried to find out several personal information about the witness, but the witness’ lawyer objected several times to these questions and some of them were sustained.There were also several breaks and deliberations.
It is worth noting that during these two sessions there was a Syrian journalist named Tariq Khilou who had previously attended the opening session of this trial and had a journalist accreditation from the court, which granted him an interpretation service this time,to be the first Syrian journalist to receive such accreditation.This has followed the objection presented by the freelance journalist Mr. Mansour Al-Omari, and Mr. Hassan Qansu,representative of the Syrian Centre for Justice and Accountability, and the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court in this regard.
On 15 and 16 September, the court will resume sessions with witness, Mr. Mazen Darwish, president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression.
The Syrian conflict began in 2011 after the Assad regime brutally suppressed peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. More than 500,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced, mostly as a result of regime bombardment of civilian areas.