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World Al-Assad’s Nuremberg moment: Page by page, an NGO and its Canadian founder build a case for Syrian war crimes

A banner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flies in Douma, outside Damascus, in 2018. The Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a non-profit founded in 2012, has been carefully collecting documents being used to build a case against Mr. al-Assad and his supporters for war crimes.

Marko Djurica/Reuters

Anwar Raslan likely thought he was safe living as a refugee in Germany – his past forgotten – until the day in February when police arrested him over the alleged role he played years earlier in the torture of prisoners by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Should Mr. Raslan eventually be convicted, it will be due in large part to the work of a veteran Canadian war-crimes investigator and his team, who over the past seven years have smuggled hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence out of Syria and Iraq – documents that are now being used to build war-crimes cases against Mr. al-Assad and his henchmen, as well as senior figures in the Islamic State (IS).

If you haven’t heard of William Wiley or the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, the non-profit organization that he established in 2012, that’s because he likes it that way. CIJA has no website, and there’s no sign on the door of the office that Mr. Wiley and his team work out of. The Globe and Mail agreed not to name the European country that CIJA’s head office staff are located in, out of concern that the group’s work could make it a target.

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But the project is well-known to Western governments, including Canada’s, which collectively provide $8-million in annual funding for the group’s 150 investigators, most of whom are at work on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Though the first grant came from the British government, Ottawa has since taken the lead, providing CIJA with $3-million a year since 2015. Mr. Wiley and his team represent a new force in international justice – one that struck a deal with anti-Assad rebels to keep the evidence from going up in smoke and being lost forever.

William Wiley reviews some files among the archive of 800,000 pages of documents he and his team have collected and smuggled out of Syria.

Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

Dressed in a golf shirt, cargo pants and hiking shoes, with his reddish-blonde hair kept short, Mr. Wiley – a veteran of the efforts to bring justice to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – still looks like the reservist soldier he was while he worked on his PhD in international criminal law at York University more than a quarter century ago. The CIJA headquarters is more military headquarters than legal office: While some rooms feature maps of Syria and Iraq, or graphics showing the Syrian regime’s chain of command, the walls of Mr. Wiley’s own office are bare. The main decoration is a collection of whisky bottles that sit on a table beside a Nespresso coffee machine.

The reason for all the cloak and dagger can be found among the piles of thick binders that Mr. Wiley keeps on the black metal bookcase behind his desk. Crimes Against Humanity Committed in Detention Facilities of the Syrian Regime, is the title page of one – hundreds of pages thick – that lays out the alleged crimes committed by officials such as Mr. Raslan. The 56-year-old Mr. Raslan is accused of running two branches of Syria’s notorious General Intelligence Directorate that routinely employed torture, including extreme sexual violence, while interrogating more than 100 prisoners a day.

CIJA’s files also contain what Mr. Wiley says is proof that Mr. al-Assad himself had knowledge of, and approved the actions of, his subordinates. “It’s pretty clear that Assad was not a figurehead. He was in charge, and the senior guys deferred to him.” That, Mr. Wiley said, makes the Syrian leader criminally responsible for the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out by his forces.

“It’s the best evidence against a regime since Nuremberg,” the 55-year-old said, referring to the landmark postwar trials that convicted members of the Nazi regime and became the template for international justice. Mr. Wiley, who worked as an analyst for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, views the evidence against Mr. al-Assad as “much, much better” than what was presented in court against Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who was charged with war crimes and genocide over his role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Mr. Milosevic died in custody in The Hague in 2006, before a verdict was reached in his trial.

The binders are English-language distillations of more than 800,000 pages of mostly Arabic-language evidence that CIJA has assembled. The documents make for often-appalling reading. Among the evidence that’s ready for an eventual prosecution are thousands of photos of detainees’ bodies – many of them badly mutilated – that were taken by a regime photographer who later defected. One document asks what should be done with a “hospital refrigerator full of unidentified corpses that have decomposed.”

Such disregard for the rules of war have helped Mr. al-Assad to the brink of victory in Syria’s civil war. His forces, with Russian air support, have begun an assault on the last major rebel-held area, the province of Idlib in the northwest of the country. (U.S.-backed Kurdish forces control the east of the country, after driving IS out of its last strongholds.)

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May 30, 2019: A Syrian girl cries as she runs for cover during an air strike by pro-regime forces on the market town of Kfar Ruma in Idlib province, the last major rebel-held stronghold in Syria.

Nazeer Al-khatib/AFP/Getty Images

The Assad regime also has Russia’s diplomatic protection. Moscow can use its veto at the United Nations Security Council to veto any attempt to set up an international tribunal. But Mr. Wiley still says CIJA’s evidence will one day be used against Mr. al-Assad in court. “I don’t want to be accused of wishful thinking, but I think there’s a realistic chance that he will become expendable, at some point, to his backers,” Mr. Wiley said between puffs on one of half a dozen Cuban cigarillos he smokes over the course of a four-hour interview. Russia, he suggests, may one day see escaping economic sanctions as more important than protecting the Syrian strongman.

Mr. Wiley says the evidence against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS, is less thorough in documentary terms, and more reliant on the testimony of victims, than the case against Mr. al-Assad. But Mr. Wiley says his group has more than enough evidence to help convict the IS leader if he’s ever arrested and brought to court in the West.

Mr. Wiley founded CIJA in part out of frustration with the glacial pace that international justice usually moves. His experience at Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, as well as The Hague-based permanent International Criminal Court (ICC), gave Mr. Wiley a close-up look at the failings of such unwieldy multinational efforts. (Mr. Wiley also served on the defence side of the ledger as an adviser to Saddam Hussein’s legal team, an experience that led to an hours-long conversation – he says it was a “monologue,” with the former Iraqi dictator doing all of the talking – shortly before Mr. Hussein’s conviction and execution in 2006.)

After a conversation with Stephen Rapp, who served president Barack Obama’s White House as ambassador-at-large for war-crimes issues (a post the Trump administration has left unfilled), Mr. Wiley set up CIJA. The aim was to do the things that existing multilateral bodies can’t or won’t do – such as send investigators into an active war zone to collect evidence before it’s destroyed.

“I saw it could be done faster and at a better price,” Mr. Wiley explains. (The ICC has spent more than a billion dollars since its creation in 2002, with only three convictions to show for it to date.) CIJA, in Mr. Wiley’s vision, isn’t meant to supplant institutions such as the ICC, but to try and help them along. “We act as a bridge between nothing happening and the public sector gripping the situation. Once the public sector grips the situation, we disengage and go somewhere else that we’re needed.”

That’s starting to happen in Syria, where the United Nations has set up its own mechanism for investigating possible war crimes committed since the conflict began in 2011. Mr. Wiley said CIJA will eventually hand its evidence over to the UN body, and move on to other cases.

Mr. Wiley says CIJA will eventually give United Nations investigators evidence to begin pursuing war-crimes cases related to the Syrian war.

Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

Much of CIJA’s team are now focused on assembling evidence implicating senior IS members in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The investigators also have their sights set on new targets, in other parts of the world, but Mr. Wiley says it’s too early to talk publicly about those efforts without jeopardizing them.

In addition to assembling a ready body of evidence for the day that war-crimes suspects are brought to justice, CIJA’s work has developed a more immediate purpose that wasn’t foreseen when the group started work in Syria seven years ago.

Through its war-crimes research, the group has assembled a database of Syrian regime and IS documents that Western governments can use to conduct background checks on some of the million-plus refugees and migrants who arrived in Europe since 2015.

CIJA, which also has a “tracking team” that monitors the movements of potential suspects, says it received 170 requests for assistance over the past year from Western governments, most of them asking for information about Assad regime officials or IS members believed to now be in Europe. A request to CIJA from the German government, asking for information about Mr. Raslan, preceded his arrest in February.

One of the key revelations in the evidence CIJA has assembled is a document trail, including pages bearing Mr. al-Assad’s signature, showing he personally headed the Central Crisis Management Cell (CCMC), a war cabinet that was created soon after the outbreak of the first anti-government protests early in 2011, and which brought together the country’s top military and intelligence officials.

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Mr. al-Assad's signature, bottom left, on one of the CIJA documents.

CIJA

Mr. Wiley says the evidence shows the CCMC directing the regime’s harsh response to the early protests, which included mass arrests, torture and the use of live ammunition against unarmed crowds. Mr. al-Assad’s embrace of violence helped drive the country into a civil war that has since claimed at least half a million lives, while pushing millions more to flee their homes.

Early in the war, Mr. Wiley struck a pact with the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, an anti-Assad umbrella movement that took over swathes of the country in 2011 and 2012, and which briefly looked powerful enough to topple the regime.

When the FSA captured a government building, the fighters initially saw little use in the reams of government documents inside. “They would film themselves setting these places alight, dance around, and then put it on YouTube. I was having a heart attack watching all this prima facie evidence go up in flames,” Mr. Wiley recalled.

He eventually persuaded the FSA leadership that the best way to get revenge on the government was to make sure it was called to account for what it had done to its citizens. An order went out granting Mr. Wiley’s investigators – all of them Syrians trained by CIJA in what did and did not constitute evidence that could be used in a criminal proceeding – access to any buildings the FSA captured.

Even with the FSA onside, getting the documents out of Syria was deadly dangerous. Two CIJA investigators died in the effort – one when the FSA convoy he was travelling with was hit by regime fire; the other was captured by IS and never heard from again.

Despite the violence, CIJA’s pile of evidence continued to grow. The documents – whether they were central-government decrees or records of an individual interrogation – were smuggled back to CIJA’s head office, where each page was scanned and given an individual bar code. The originals were then filed away in cardboard boxes in a locked room.

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Posters of Mr. al-Assad and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib.

GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. al-Assad’s regime was propped up by Russian and Iranian forces since early in Syria’s civil war. But Mr. Wiley says none of the evidence collected by CIJA points in the direction of Moscow or Tehran. Even if it did, he says, there would be no point in building a case against Russian or Iranian officials.

“There is a political element in international justice that can’t be denied,” he said. “There’s no reasonable prospect of Putin – or any senior Russian guy, or any Iranian for that matter – being prosecuted.”

Some legal experts, while lauding the effort CIJA has put in, nonetheless wonder about the admissibility of evidence gathered with the help of armed fighters dedicated to bringing down the Syrian government.

“How do you know, in a court of law, where that evidence came from? How do you guarantee that the evidence was never tampered with? That’s a big test,” said Mark Kersten, a specialist in international law at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. “They were looking for evidence of ISIS crimes or regime crimes – which means they were not looking for opposition crimes.”

But Mr. Wiley – pointing to his experiences in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – says seeking justice in a war zone almost always involves co-operating with one side in a conflict to gather evidence against the other. He acknowledges that Western governments fund CIJA because they believe the Assad regime and IS need to be held accountable for their alleged crimes. And he doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

“It’s not on CIJA to investigate everyone. There’s nothing stopping another NGO or public authority from investigating the Syrian opposition.”

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Barbara Harvey, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, said the federal government’s support for CIJA was intended to help ensure that evidence was available if and when the Syrian regime or IS leaders were made to face a court of justice.

“Those who have committed these egregious attacks must be held to account,” Ms. Harvey said, referring in particular to the Syrian government’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians and use of chemical weapons, as well as the atrocities committed by IS against Iraq’s Yazidi minority. However, in an e-mail exchange, Ms. Harvey did not reply to questions about the implications of CIJA co-operating with one side in a conflict to gather evidence against other belligerents.

The case against Mr. Raslan – and whether a German court will admit the evidence that CIJA has assembled – will be an important test of CIJA’s work, as will the trials of two more junior regime figures who were arrested in Germany and France at the same time as Mr. Raslan.

CIJA evidence was used in a U.S. civil court's ruling in connection with the death of American war correspondent Marie Colvin.

Sunday Times/AFP/Getty Images

A U.S. civil court has already decided to accept evidence gathered by CIJA, ruling in January that Mr. al-Assad’s regime was guilty of “targeted murder” in the 2012 killing of journalist Marie Colvin, with the court ordering the Syrian government to pay Ms. Colvin’s family more than US$300-million in damages. The ruling was based partly on CIJA evidence that showed the CCMC had issued a directive calling for a “joint security-military campaign” against “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media.”

Other binders on Mr. Wiley’s bookcase lay out the evidence of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic State in the parts of Syria and Iraq it used to control. Mr. Wiley says the documents establish a chain of command, and criminal responsibility, for IS mass executions and the enslavement of women and children that stretches all the way up to Mr. al-Baghdadi, the self-styled “emir” of IS.

But few Western governments seem interested in repatriating citizens who are IS suspects in order to hold expensive domestic trials. That means most of the surviving IS leadership – those who weren’t killed in bloody battles for Mosul and Raqqa – will likely face justice in Iraq. CIJA’s donors have signalled that they wouldn’t allow it to assist that process because of Iraq’s frequent use of the death penalty.

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The exception may be Mr. al-Baghdadi, whom Mr. Wiley says the United States could be interested in extraditing, if he’s captured alive, to face charges in the U.S. over crimes such as the gruesome murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Although some U.S. states also allow for capital punishment, Mr. Wiley can’t envision CIJA’s donors, which include the U.S., barring his group from supporting such a prosecution.

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, shown in an undated TV image from Al-Furqan media from a propaganda video filmed in an undisclosed location.

al-Furqan/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Wiley alternates between speaking with the careful wording of a legal professional, and the occasionally crude bluntness of a buddy in the barracks. Born in Toronto – something he utters like a guilty plea – “home” for Mr. Wiley means Newfoundland, where he spends time fishing and hunting each summer, and where he has a retirement home ready for the day he’s finished chasing alleged war criminals.

He thought he was done with international justice after Mr. Hussein’s trial (a conviction he says wouldn’t have held up in a common-law jurisdiction – “the evidence was there, but it was improperly presented”). After his stint in Iraq, Mr. Wiley set up a consulting firm that offered security and human-rights training to corporations operating in potentially dangerous environments. “I was out. I was running a business and working and making far more money than I do running an NGO. But I was bored.”

Then the Syrian civil war broke out, and the British government asked his company if it would give human-rights training to a group of Syrian civil-society activists. Mr. Wiley saw no point giving human-rights training to people whose country was descending into all-out war. But he and Mr. Rapp saw a way to help Syria prepare for the day after the fighting was over. Many of the human-rights activists the British government identified were trained instead to become war-crimes investigators, some of whom remain with CIJA today.

The assumption back when the effort began was that the regime would collapse and Mr. al-Assad would be brought before some kind of international tribunal. That possibility seems remote now, but Mr. Wiley – who has seen the likes of Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Hussein lose the impunity they once enjoyed – remains confident that Mr. al-Assad will one day have to face the evidence that CIJA has collected. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to face justice. I just don’t know whether it’s going to take five years or 10.”



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