Syrian torture: Will photos turn US opinion?

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Media captionGraphic photographs of torture in Syria are on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington

While the world's attention is focused on the atrocities committed by the so-called Islamic State (IS), Syrians worry the suffering caused by their own government has been forgotten.

These days, a graphic reminder of that suffering is projected from morning to evening on the wall of a dark room of an unlikely building in Washington: the United States Holocaust Memorial museum.

When a Syrian military photographer who had documented hundreds of deaths by starvation and torture in government jails defected this summer, he smuggled a trove of 55,000 pictures out of the country and took them to the US.

He wanted the museum to preserve the pictures for future generations as proof of the crimes committed by the Syrian government. The museum leadership went further: they decided to put some of them on display, in a slide projection of stills with text.

"Showing the pictures is part of our mission to show that genocide didn't end with the Holocaust. This is not just a 20th Century problem, it's a 21st Century problem," said Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum's center for the prevention of genocide. He described the pictures as more extreme than anything else shown at the museum.

Image caption The photos are on projected on to the walls of the museum

"The lessons drawn from the Holocaust have not been learned and the idea of 'never again' has not been achieved. We've not lived up to it."

In the same building where the haunting black-and-white faces of prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps stare down at visitors, museum-goers now see pictures in full colour of victims of another, modern, torture system. While the scale is incomparable, the methods are eerily similar.

The Syria pictures, taken between 2011 and 2013 by a defector code-named "Cesar", show emaciated, bruised, bodies lying in warehouse-types spaces. All the bodies are tagged or accompanied with an index card, showing systematic documentation reminiscent of Nazi methods.

The government of Bashar el Assad has said the pictures are fake or depict bodies of combatants killed in fighting, but forensic and international law experts say the photos are authentic.

Cesar said the pictures show the death of 11,000 individuals and are just the beginning. He claimed at least 150,000 Syrians are in government jails.

Survivors of torture felt vindicated when the pictures were made public.

"Every time I would tell somebody what I witnessed inside, about how systematic the torture is inside, everyone would say there was no way that this could be really happening," says 24-year-old Syrian activist Qutaiba Idlbi, who was jailed and tortured twice at the start of the revolution and later escaped to the US.

"But when those pictures came out I would say, 'this is what I've been telling you'. I was lucky to get out but I witnessed people die in front of me because of this."

Image caption Cesar testified in Congress in 2014

Torture in Syria precedes the Syrian uprising, but these photos are the first time such detailed evidence of it has emerged from an inside source.

Hitler's "technician of death" and Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner is believed to have found refuge in Syria after WW2. He reportedly later served as an adviser to President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, and is thought to have instructed the government on torture tactics. Recent information surfaced suggesting he had died a few years ago and was buried in Syria.

The State Department is helping to build a case for war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Assad government and says the pictures are key evidence, but the wheels of international justice turn slowly.

Image caption Hitler's "technician of death" Alois Brunner is rumoured to have fled to Syria

Referral to the International Criminal Court requires support from all five members of the UN Security Council.

"It may not be this year, it may not be five years from now but if you have the evidence, the survivors, and the commitment from major countries like our own, the day will arrive where we'll find a time to present this evidence against those responsible," said Stephen Rapp, the state department's ambassador-at-large for war crimes.

Mr Rapp added that prosecutions could start sooner if it can be determined that torture victims were dual citizens with European or American nationality.

So far the FBI, which has been pouring over 22,000 of the pictures that Cesar handed over, has not been able to identify any American citizens. A number of European citizens may have been identified, although the matches are still not certain.

In the summer, wearing a disguise, Cesar testified in Congress. The room was stunned into silence by the graphic suffering on display as the pictures flicked on screens.

Congressman Elliot Engel who was in the room at the time said there was no doubt in his mind that they were looking at evidence of war crimes. He believes that if the US had armed the rebels opposed to Mr Assad earlier and better, many of the deaths shown in the pictures could have been prevented, and the rise of IS could have been stemmed. The administration disputes that.

"Assad has to be dealt with, he cannot remain in control of Syria, he cannot be part of the solution, because he is part of the problem," he told the BBC.

Mr Rapp of the state department insisted that the current focus on the violence perpetrated by IS did not distract him from his mission to pursue the case against Assad's government.

Image caption Syrian activist Qutaiba Idlbi says the photos validate his experience

Syrians are less certain. Sitting on a bench outside the museum, with a banner with words "Never again'' hanging from a lamppost, Mr Idlbi says the world has forgotten how the war in Syria started.

When I asked him if he thought the display of pictures from Syria had made a difference, he let out a big sigh and paused for a few seconds before answering.

"I hoped it would, but for some reason it's not," he says.

"The regime caused all of this but now they seem to be the angels fighting bad the guys. Who cares anymore about 200,000 people who got killed or hundreds of thousands who are in prison or ten millions of people [made] refugees who lost their houses?"

In short, he says, despite photographic evidence, "it seems no one really cares."

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