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Lest We Forget: Syria and the Caesar photographs

What do the Caesar photographs show? 

The Caesar Photographs are around 55000 photographs smuggled out of Syria in 2014, showing images of individuals who had died in Syria. The majority were emaciated. Many showed signs of inflicted injuries, restraint and mutilation. Many of them show individuals alleged by the photographer to have died in detention in government facilities. A significant proportion showed signs of inflicted injury and of starvation.

The photographs were accepted as genuine after examination by a forensic team commissioned by a UK legal firm named Carter-Ruck. This firm send a group of experienced human rights lawyers and forensic pathologists to examine the photographs, and had a large random sample examined for evidence of digital interference.

The photographs were also subsequently examined by Human Rights Watch who published an article about them in December 2015.

“You can bring photographs from anyone and say this is torture. There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence…. No, no. It’s funded by Qatar, and they say it’s an anonymous source. So nothing is clear or proven…”

President Bashar al-Assad, Interview with Foreign Affairs, January 20, 2015

President Assad denies that the photographs show tortured detainees. The Syria Solidarity Movement published a document,“The Caesar Photo Fraud”  in March 2016. This organisation’s rhetoric seeks peace in Syria but is broadly supportive of President Assad.

Some of the photographs can still be seen online. To view them you need to click on the black window on the page you land on from the link below. They are offered as evidence for those who would like to make their own assessment of  President Assad’s response the pictures. They are real people, who once lived and breathed and laughed and loved. They are not a chance to be horrified to no purpose, as they are desperately, grimly sad, for the individuals, for their families, for humanity. They are here.

The SSM challenge the reports in various ways:

  • SSM allege that HRW and Carter-Ruck have inaccurately claimed that all 11,000 pictured bodies were tortured to death.

This is not true. The HRW reports states:

“The largest category of photographs, 28,707 images, are photographs of people Human Rights Watch understands to have died in government custody, either in one of several detention facilities or after being transferred to a military hospital. These 28,707 photographs correspond to at least 6,786 separate dead individuals each with their own unique identification numbers.

The second category of photographs are images of dead army soldiers or members of the security forces. These photographs were also taken in the morgues of military hospitals. However, unlike the first batch, the cards on these photographs include the name of the person who died, and sometimes the date of their death. In many cases, their name is prefaced by the word shahid, or martyr, in Arabic, as well as by their military rank. In addition to the cards, their name, the word shahid, and their military rank also often appear in the file name.

The third category of photographs taken by the Syrian Military Police can be described as crime scene photographs taken in the aftermath of attacks and cover several categories of incidents including the aftermath of explosions, assassinations of security officers, fires, and car bombs. The name of the folder in which sets of photographs were saved indicates the type of incident, the date, and sometimes, the name of the victim. Human Rights Watch was able to confirm some of these incidents and killings, which were covered in the Syrian media at the time they occurred.”

The Carter-Ruck forensic report states:

“Some five thousand five hundred (5,500) images were examined in total by the forensics team, being of an estimated one thousand three hundred (1,300) individual corpses.The vast majority of the images were of young men. There were no children. Images of 835 deceased persons were evaluated in detail. Of these 20% showed evidence of inflicted trauma and 30% were equivocal. 42% showed emaciation. A significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects.

A “dip sample” of images of 150 separate individuals was included from two randomly selected files for detailed examination. Only 5% of images of bodies showed no apparent evidence of either injury or emaciation. 62% of the images of deceased persons showed emaciation. The inquiry team is satisfied that upon the material it has reviewed there is clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government.

They also comment: these photographs also included those who appeared to have been starved to death, some with signs of torture prior to death. There appear to have been many forms of torture used by those responsible for those in detention. The unmistakable marks of ligature strangulation were evident on a number of bodies. The beatings to which the deceased had been subjected in life were evident on their bodies in death. The appearance of a large number of young people in the photographic images, with no apparent injuries, is suggestive of death by unnatural means. For example there was evidence of injury by electrocution on some of the bodies. We accept that this is a speculative conclusion. However, looking at this category of images in light of all the other facts, including the fact that those bodies were together with the others who had clearly been murdered, lends support to the conclusion that they met their end at the hands of their captors.”

  • SSM state that the reports make allegations that other photos only show “tortured detainees”.

As seen above neither HRW nor the Carter-Ruck report make this allegation.

  • SSM state that the true identity of ‘Caesar’ is probably not as claimed.

No evidence is offered to support this statement.

  • SSM allege that the Carter-Ruck inquiry was rushed, faulty and politically motivated.

No evidence is offered to support this statement.

  • SSM state that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is involved.

The authors do not state explicitly why this casts doubt on the conclusions in the reports. Their allegation implies a view that this organisation is not to be trusted, but the evidence does seem to speak for itself.

  • Simple administrative procedures are portrayed as mysterious and sinister.

It is not clear what part of the reports is referred to here.

  • The photos have been tampered with.

The photographs were examined by a forensic specialist for evidence of tampering. He concluded that they had not been tampered with.

  • The photo catalog is faulty.

It is not clear what this statement means nor what evidence the authors have for it.

  • Western media has uncritically promoted the story.

The Western media reported a story as though it was of enormous significance, having assessed and accepted the verification process of Carter-Ruck. In this the role of the Press was to present the evidence.

  • Politicians have promoted the story for propaganda purposes.

Propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view. Propaganda is information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda. Propaganda biases evidence to influence opinion. These photographs have been presented as they are, with statements analysing what they contain in a factual and objective manner.

  • The Human Rights Watch assessment is biased.

No evidence is offered in support of this statement.

  • The legal accusations are biased and ignore the supreme crime of aggression

No evidence is offered. The statement implies that ‘aggression’ (presumably against President Assad) should be taken into account in these reports. The relevance of the statement is unclear unless the authors feel that the fact that President Assad has faced violent opposition to some extent justifies the atrocities suggested by some of the photographs.


“A Report into the credibility of certain evidence with regard to Torture and Execution of Persons Incarcerated by the current Syrian regime.” was prepared for Carter-Ruck and Co. Solicitors of London and issued through CNN and The Guardian on 20 January 2014

The Human Rights Watch report was published on their website on December 16th 2015.

Who is Caesar?

Caesar is a defector from government-controlled Syria whose occupation was as a photographer in the service of the military police of the Syrian government. In that capacity, for many years, he had photographed scenes of crimes. With the onset of the civil war his duties changed to photographing and documenting bodies brought from places of detention to a military hospital.
Caesar had for some time been smuggling images out of Syria, as a matter of conscience. Other similar images have been smuggled out by other people. Each deceased person was photographed several times (the forensic team ascertained that this was 4-5 times per body).

Caesar said to the Guardian in October 2015, “I had never seen anything like it. Before the uprising, the regime tortured prisoners to get information; now they were torturing to kill. I saw marks left by burning candles, and once the round mark of a stove – the sort you use to heat tea – that had burned someone’s face and hair. Some people had deep cuts, some had their eyes gouged out, their teeth broken, you could see traces of lashes with those cables you use to start cars. There were wounds full of pus, as if they’d been left untreated for a long time and had got infected. Sometimes the bodies were covered with blood that looked fresh. It was clear they had died very recently.”

He began to smuggle pictures out, via a friend named Sami, and continued to do so for some time, until he fled the country himself. Those pictures are the Caesar photographs.

Was Caesar credible?

The inquiry team found that “Caesar” was not only credible but that his account was most compelling.

The inquiry team also heard evidence from “Caesar’s” contact, who confirmed that he was Caesar’s relative by marriage and that he had left Syria five days after the civil war against the current Syrian regime had begun and established contact with international human rights groups. Subsequently an information committee was formed in the Middle East to collect and document material as to what was happening within Syria. This witness informed the inquiry team that “Caesar” was working with his group from an early stage, the witness having contacted “Caesar” for this purpose in or around September 2011. According to this witness, “we started to look for an information source within the regime. There was a problem about gaining evidence about detainees and those who had disappeared. We had to look for people working with the regime itself who are sympathetic to our cause…” . The witness informed the inquiry team that when “Caesar” started to be concerned about his safety, after he had sent out tens of thousands of images that this witness and others in his group began to plan for Caesar’s successful defection. The witness described how Caesar was exfiltrated from Syria.

The Carter-Ruck team consisted of

Legal Team

The Right Honourable Sir Desmond de Silva QC (Chairman)

  • A former Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Appointed personally by the Secretary General of the United Nations. In that capacity he brought about the arrest of President Charles Taylor of Liberia.

Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC

  • The former lead prosecutor of ex-President Milosevic of Yugoslavia before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Professor David M. Crane

  • The first Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Appointed personally by the Secretary General of the United Nations. In that capacity he indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia.

The Forensics Team

Dr. Stuart J. Hamilton MB ChB BMSc(Hons) FRCPath MFFLM. A forensic pathologist on the United Kingdom Home Office Register.

Professor Susan Black OBE BSc PhD DSc FRSE FRAI Cert-FA1 Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology. Certified forensic anthropologist.

Stephen Cole MFSSoc. Technical Director for Acume Forensics and Forensic Imaging expert

Photo Credit: Lucas Jackson, Reuters.


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