HRW releases ‘If the dead could speak’

After release of 50,000 photos of dead torture victims in Assad regime prisons by Syrian regime defector ‘Caesar’ Human Rights Watch has investigated photos, released ‘If the dead could speak’ report verifying grotesque reality of photos

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Man gives medical assistance to an injured man as two wounded children wait nearby at a field hospital after what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria February 2

Updated Dec 18, 2015

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has spent 9 months verifying over 50,000 photos released by a former Syrian military police photographer code named ‘Caesar,’ who defected from Syria in August 2013 and released the shocking photos in January 2014.

On December 16 2015, HRW released ‘If the dead could speak,’ an investigative report tracing the authenticity of the photos Caesar took between 2011 and 2013.

Caesar, who fears using his real name due to unfortunate ramifications it may have, initially gave the photos to the Syrian National Movement (SNM), which is an opposition political movement. Members of that group formed the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainees (SAFMCD), and took custody of the files.

In March 2015, the SNM gave 53,275 unique files to HRW, and in return, the HRW went on an extensive journey aimed at finding the victims’ families, after making sure the photos are in fact authentic and have not been digitally altered.

Given that Caesar was a forensic military police photographer, the photos appear to be “a bureaucratic effort by the Syrian security apparatus to maintain a photographic record of the thousands who have died in detention since 2011,” the HRW report said.

Using testimonies of former detainees, Syrian defectors in various countries and with the assistance of satellite imagery, HRW was successful in identifying a number of detention camps and sites that appear extensively in the photos.

“HRW identified and mapped 27 of these detention centers around the country, many in the capital, Damascus,” the report said.

“While accounts by released detainees and defectors consistently indicated that incommunicado detention and torture were rampant and detainees were dying in large numbers in Syria.”


Forensic experts were needed to determine the causes of death in the photos. Very poor prison conditions resulted in an array of reasons that can ultimately kill prisoners.

HRW listed possible reasons of death as “Gastrointestinal infections, sometimes involving severe diarrhea and dehydration, skin disease leading to infection, torture, mental distress that led detainees to refuse to eat and drink.”

“Chronic diseases (like hypertension, diabetes, asthma, or kidney disease) for which detainees did not receive the necessary medication or treatment,” the report added.

The photos showed the dead bodies, numbered, some naked, or half naked and trauma bluntly visible on their face and bodies. It was also revealed later through satellite imagery which was compared with the smuggled photos, that the torture victims were buried in the backyard of a military hospital in Damascus, called 601 in Mezze. 

TRTWorld and agencies