Warning: This site contains images and graphic descriptions of extreme violence and/or its effects. It's not as bad as it could be, but is meant to be shocking. Readers should be 18+ or a mature 17 or so. There is also some foul language occasionally, and potential for general upsetting of comforting conventional wisdom. Please view with discretion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fail Caesar Part 5: Questioning the Number System

Fail "Caesar" Part 5: Questioning the Number System
January 16. 2015
(incomplete - last edits Feb. 7)

Please note: this is something of a report on work in progress, only bordering on a readable long article. It's meant more to skim,  to inspire more researchers to look into it,  as a reference and shortcut for them, and - most importantly - to help the general public (those who can follow, and care enough) to think outside the box here. A lot is covered below, from basics to detailed observations and thought exercises. Not every point does much to challenge "Caesar" narrative, but each one matters in considering the whole.
Here is where I will analyze the number system used in the massive catalog of morgue photos presented by the Syrian defector "Caesar," the alleged meaning behind each number, and some consideration of other possible meanings.

According to the partisan defector, all of the 55,000 photos he smuggled out after fleeing in mid-late August, 2013, show killed detainees of the "Assad regime," with all other kinds of deaths in the Damascus area during the conflict apparently documented somewhere else. were  However, as I've previously addressed (see The Other Half of the Caesar Photos), there was a late revelation that almost half of the touted 55,000 images actually showed victims and effects of opposition violence or, at least, something other than detainee deaths. The remaining half, as accepted by Human Rights Watch, suggested close to 7,000 prisoners of the state security system, when it was said to be over 11,000. 

As it turns out after some study, the photos touted as that seem to show nearly 7,000 people who mainly seem to me like clear mid-to-long-term detainees of someone. Also as claimed, the number system implies even more passed through - perhaps just over 11,000 suggested. This is a coincidence (or is it?) The previous 11,000 claim was based on different and flawed reasoning by Carter-Ruck and/or their sources (see the link above for that part and see below for the new stuff.) But a number of interesting points emerge, especially as we consider what the numbers mean.

Reading the Numbers
For anyone wanting to read along, the photographers here used the Eastern Arabic number system. The digits translate:

٩ ٨ ٧ ٦ ٥ ٤ ٣ ٢ ١ ٠
  0 1 2 3 4  5 6 7 8 9

So the 1 and 9 are familiar to us - users of the "Western Arabic" system - while the 4, 5, and 6 are confusing, and their 0 is easy to miss or confuse with a fly. Further, they write the 2 differently than shown here, perhaps to make it more distinct from the three - simpler and almost like the letter C, so 215 looks like CIO, and 227 like CCV.  That's because, while Arab writing reads right-to-left, number blocks read left-to-right like Westerners do it.

I'm not sure how unusual it is to use this more archaic number system. It seems odd, but might be standard and used already (see below: Previous Example: Deraa).

Here's how the system is used on the index cards seen in the photos (at right). As all sources pretty much agree and analysis seems to bear out, they put branch victim and branch number at the top, and a hospital 601 processing number below (due to reading order, I put the /b at the end like they do - it's a suffix, not prefix).

Here, notice an unusual thing; the person first wrote for hospital # 4924/b, and covered  the 9 with a bolder 6. This might suggest (truthfully or not) that the writer normally used the Persian variant number system (compare here - their 6 is more similar to a 9). Or they just thought 9. This victim 227-2615, by the way, is the one tattoo-identifiable Christian I can point to in the photo catalog. What better time (aside from when you've killed a Shia or Alawi) to trot out hints that Iranians did it? That's all highly speculative. "Caesar" could have just forgot where he was, and numbered this one ... off by exactly 300? How do you do that when you're deep in 4600s, just did 4622, and suddenly think this one's 4923? Hm... that's fairly possible. But it's one of the smaller mysteries discovered so far.

The branch number often appears on the victim's forehead, written on the skin directly or on a piece of tape. Both this and the hospital number are often written on their chests or bodies. All seem to use the same system and tend to match up.

Now let's consider each number shown, from the bottom up:

* Hospital 601 processing number, or just hospital number, or bottom number: others use "examination number" or "death number." It seems to be assigned on-site at hospital 601 based on the order bodies are received. SNHR says this bottom number shows "precisely the detainee’s number after his death under torture in the security forces’  branch." My guess on the real purpose is below, under "hospital#: final index for retrieval?")

* Branch number: - the designation of the branch of Syrian military intelligence responsible for this body, allegedly. (see list below under "branch number means what?") The common understanding is that branch held the man prisoner, tortured him, and in the end killed him. But this is open to question (see same section).

* Branch victim #: Aside from the first 999 victims, the top number is usually 4 digits long, resting on the bar over branch number. Just what this represents and how it progresses is disputed, and discussed below ("branch victim#: for prisoners or corpses?").

The Whole System: What's Confirmed and What's in Question?
The nearly 7,000 face-shots were published in March, 2015 by the Syrian Association For Missing and Conscience Detainees (SAFMCD), the official guardians of the photos. Their photos - WARNING: GRAPHIC - can be seen here (organized into branch-based folders in Arabic. The numbers are normal here, and 215, 227 etc. are easy to find). I'm not showing them here, since I clicked this agreement. But in the interest of identifying the dead, their method of death, and killers, I've done some serious review of these photos, entry numbers and file names, and previously released photos. Now I can verify the following claims:

* At least several group shots, and likely a vast majority of all photos, were taken at the garage behind military hospital 601 in Damascus, and/or in a hospital setting taken as 601 or one affiliated. (Tishreen military hospital is mentioned). Apparently, this is still a controversial point to some people, but it shouldn't be. See HRW report for graphic explanation, or here at ACLOS, where it's noted Bellingcat also got it right. Well inside the secured core of the capitol and just down the hill from president Assad's home, this is an official place, and these should be official procedures.It's still possible many or even most photos were actually taken somewhere else and slipped in, but I'm not proceeding on that idea.

* The SAFMCD database includes 6,850 photos, mainly face shots. This minus exceptions (several duplicates at least, one tattoo shot, one blank card, etc.) probably is just about the estimated numbers cited. HRW has 6,786 detainees, and the book by Garance Le Caisne reached a count of 6,627. Both sound close to what I'd guess. I'm liking the low one at the moment, but will use a rounded-off middle number of 6,700 as shorthand.

* The SAFMCD decided the hospital number (bottom #) rises to 5,000 (or 4,999?), then switches to restart at 1 but with a suffix - the Arabic letter for b. (I presume that's what they decided, as it seems right - HRW tried to explain it but it came out mangled - see here). I don't know how logical that is. They would most logically use the whole ten digits before re-starting, but whatever the reason, I can see numbers ticking up to near 5,000 (highest seen: 4887), then starting low with a /ب . That's the second letter in their alphabet, like in ours with "b" sound (and the first letter is their "a," but from there it's different). The lowest I've noted is 357/b. And we can see it again climbing to close to 5,000 (highest seen - 4994/b). (See ACLOS table, 2nd column, continues across all boxes, all branches, all victims, and very far from complete).

A full cycle of 1-5,000/nothing and then a cycle up to 5,000/b, gives 10,000 slots to fill, and the SAFMCD says there were at least 11,000 victims. This suggests 5,000/b was passed and they started with another letter, and made it at least 1,000 victims into it before "Caesar" stopped gathering and fled. Presumably the next letter would be ت, the third letter in the normal alphabet system, with a "t" sound. (the first letter,  ا ("a" sound) was skipped, implied by the nothing) I don't think I've seen that last photographed letter just yet, if I ever will, but Le Caisne's book cites it as - strangely - ث, the fourth letter with a "th" sound. (citation forthcoming) The reason for skipping a letter might be to just use even numbered letters, for no clear reason, but whatever. It also seems easy to confuse the letters, but for the author to make an issue of it, it must have been pretty clear)

At right, from an image linked in the SNHR report, is a man spitting blood despite no visible injury. He's also been moderately starved, and suffered burns or irritation to the skin of his shoulders, neck, and perhaps his eyes. On the card, on his shoulder, and on his forehead but now covered in blood, is "detainee" number 215-1289. On the card also is hospital number 4833. That's near the switch to /b numbers, so he should be in the massive folder 3-2013, where that switch happens.

* Considering that implication raises a problem; if about 6,700 faces are shown in the given span, while the body numbers in the same span suggest 11,000 or so passed through ... this means roughly 4,300 of the bodies - about 40% of them - are missing somewhere in the sequence.

This could have a totally innocent explanation, and the missing views could be just more of the same. Maybe those were on Caesar's days off? A fuller number sampling will argue for or against that. But so far it seems some single entries are missing between ones inlcluded. If that's the case widely enough, it suggests a massive filetering of the images to create a certain effect. What's missing? Natural deaths? Foreign terrorists killed in action? Pro-government militants? Identifiable pro-government civilians? Massacred women and girls? Or is it just more of the same 100% tortured detainees?

Human Rights Watch heard "Caesar" explain he only gathered photos when it seemed safe, and apparently some weren't available at those times. That could be, but precedent says when "Caesar" cites safety concerns, he means truth concerns. The photos he didn't include were likely those he feared would damage his story - worse than the ones he did include.

* The chronology between the different numbers over time seems about right so far, suggesting a huge number of detainees/victims - at least 80-90% of those seen - were documented in the periods covered by folders between Nov. 1, 2012 (reaching back how far is unclear) and August 14, 2013. There are however some number/date/folder oddities that need explored more (updates if warranted and I have time)
Despite these technical points seeming to pan out, I'm still not convinced the numbers seen represent a real "regime" system, although it would likely resemble the official system. It could well be the real deal, but the possibilities merit more scrutiny before deciding that. And more importantly, if it is official, the question of just what they're tallying here also deserves more thought and less credulity.

Branch Number Means What?
"Caesar," and all his supporting (alleged) witnesses and experts agree that the branch number shown means exactly one thing; that's who held, abused, and killed this man. But at least one interesting pattern emerges when looking at the branches blamed. These are, as auto-translated from SAFMCD folder names: # of photos there, and minimum range of victim numbers (highest and lowest I've seen so far)

    * 215 - secret raids and intrusions - 3,556 photos (min. victim # range: 178-4089)
    * 227 - Zone Branch (Damascus) - 2,047 photos (min range: 409-2822)
    * Air Force Intelligence Branch - 390 photos (branch number = Arabic letter equating to J - ج) (min range: unclear, perhaps #1, up to 9246 - many victims implied, most of whom were not sent to 601)
    * 216 - periodicals Branch - 297 (HRW gives "patrols branch," which I prefer) (min range: 44-385
    * 235 - Palestine Branch - 128 (no min range yet for this or the rest)
    * "Anonymous branch": 109 (meaning what?)
    * 251 - Internal branch - the state security: 103
    * "Sporadic views": 71 (meaning what?)
    * 248 - military investigation Branch - 54
    * 220 - Sasa branch: 50
    * Military Police Branch: 45

The top 4 are responsible for well over 90% of the photos/victims. Two of these (patrols, raids) sound clearly mobile. I'm not sure what zone means, but it might be mobile. I don't know if AF Intel has a mobile unit, or any of the other branches. But it might be that these are the people called when a pile of emaciated corpses appears, for example, at the edge of a rebel-held town or district where the local terrorists just ditched that many unneeded hostages.

Furthermore, there are other reasons military intelligence might hold bodies that other parties had collected. They might, for example, want to document what the terrorists they're up against do to people, maybe with an eye to court cases against those found responsible.

Otherwise, it's possible "Caesar" and/or collaborators controlling the site managed to re-brand bodies brought in. They could have done this with the upper numbers made up and written in - and kept track of - blaming a systemic range of security agencies, when really they were only tasked with the the hospital number.

Consider: by this spread, branches with apparent reason to interrogate people - the one reasonable if wrong use for torture - seem to be doing very little of it (fatally anyway).  Military investigation and military police branches have only 100 dead between them. Is that realistic, or a way of clarifying that this torture was mainly not about getting information? Like "Caesar" suggests at every turn, it must be about pointless, villainous, regime-change-justifying cruelty.

And then of course it's possible, and well-enough covered elsewhere, that "Caesar" and the others are correct. We're in the business of considering all possibilities here, right?

Some Apparent Combat Deaths,  But Mostly Detainees

Not that this is the most representative example, but it's an example. At right, by the card and body numbers is branch victim #j/9227, hospital # 2441/b, (with a little difficulty again in the hundreds, different ink colors, confusing errors here...). Military intelligence allegedly killed this apparent NDF fighter (aka "Shabih"), maybe for "refusing orders." He has Assad tattoos, a spiderweb on the shoulder, bearded but neat, and strong - not starved or anything, this one. He was shot in the side by a large caliber round, perhaps by a sniper.

Somehow, I suspect, he became unidentified, maybe dumped far from the kill spot, and that's why, for now, he's only identified with a number. "Caesar" would say he's another coded state secret that wound up here. Here's his SAFMCD tortured detainee entry: photo original name j-9227-4-6-2013 (5) (note: I think the 5 suggests there are 5 photos of this guy, or this is #5 of however many - a bit higher than the average seen (2 or 3), which might mean extra views ... to document tattoos, for example).

But again I emphasize, this inclusion of apparent fighters doesn't seem to be the norm. Most of those will be identified, and it seems most don't pass through here. And there's more likely to be a good number of unknown rebel fighters (foreign and domestic) included.  While such inclusions challenge the simple "Caesar" story and should be noted, the majority of photos - at least 80% - seem like hated and abused detainees. They may have been fighters once, but didn't spend their last days or die that way. Starved, tortured, eyes gouged out or damaged, and many apparently gassed to death * - these men were generally treated too poorly to be anything but prisoners.  And again I emphasize - they seem like prisoners of someone.

* Yes, gassed to death. I'll be coming back to this...

Branch Victim #: for Prisoners or Corpses?
Important question: Is the top number the victim's identifier when alive, or is it only assigned after death? The SNHR's report calls this this the victim's "number in the security branch (before his death)," presumably set by arrest or arrival date. Only the bottom number is post-death, and issued in that order.

However, as far as I've seen, branch victim numbers consistently tick up along with the hospital numbers, each one at its own varying speed. And group shots tend to show consecutive and close numbers dying at the same time. We see victims 2348, 2350, and 2355 from branch 215 at least, among a dozen men in one group shot (see here). As covered here, the scene including Rihab Allawi (the one woman in the portfolio) shows more 215 victims numbered 2916, 2920, 2922, 2924, 2925, and 2935 (Rihab), besides others that aren't readable. So even if the jailers know in advance when the prisoners will die and assign numbers that way, still they're numbered by death order, just predicted. Of course, that's not likely, so ... it's probably a simple order of death or perhaps order of counting among found dead

In fact, the SNHR must realize this sequential grouping even as they argued against its implication. When noting how different branch victims were present at the same time, they note one victim each from 215 and 216 are seen in the same photo, along with 227 victims #2076 and 2075. So clearly, it's not their number when alive, as someone told them.

Interestingly, the original Carter-Ruck Qatar report disagrees with them, and is more credible on this point (p 13):
Each murdered detainee was given two numbers with only the intelligence service knowing the identities of the corpses. The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death. When the corpse was taken to the military hospital it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital.
So the prisoner number they had when alive remains a coded secret. Or maybe it's non-existent.

Human Rights Watch heard both versions. To their credit they noted that fact, and leaned towards agreeing it's a post-death number. Their report (page 34) calls it a "detainee number: a number assigned to each detainee by the security branch that holds him in custody." When is it given? "Given that most of these numbers appear chronologically, it is likely that the number was assigned to the detainee following his death." This plainly evident truth might be why one "defector who served as a guard at a security branch" told them the number was assigned when someone died.

But HRW also heard - from the central expert, "Caesar" himself - the same thing SNHR heard. He was speaking to the UN Congress in July. (HRW was unable to get their own direct interview with the defector, while the SNHR was. He might be going into more of a retirement mode these days.) "Caesar testified that the number was assigned at the time of the detainee’s arrival at the security branch." In all his careful observation, did the heroic whistle-blower never notice how consecutive numbers kept appearing together? Or did he think they were being killed off in the same exact order they came in? If so, why did he never mention that chilling - and fairly absurd - detail?

Update: Now, maybe Caesar himself hasn't made this claim, but others have. One is the Syrian Association for Missing and Conscience Detainnes (SAFMCD), the photo curators as linked to here.  A friend alerted me to a SAFMCD video that misreads the clues almost comically, and seems to make just this claim. See:
المعتقلين ليسو أرقام - الصور المسربة (Detainees are not numbers - pictures leaked) uploaded by SAFMCD.Com, June 28, 2015. 
At 2:30, boy victim #216/85 is used to explain how branch victim # is "the number of the detainee in the intelligence branch before his murder." (emphasis in narration). Then they launch immediately into serial error and  the upside of this call - "serial murder." They show yet another group shot with 215 branch victims numbered 2173, 2175, and 2177 (video still at right). The British-accent narrator explains "the numbers of the victims are consecutive or very close in sequence. This confirms the systematic murder process of the detainees." It's not just systematic but hyper-systematic and bizarre - it would confirm they're being killed just about exactly in the order they came in.

The video also considers decay, slimy and otherwise, as caused by torture with "strange materials" (6:48). To them, this may help explain why decayed bodies are often numbered right next to freshly dead people. Here's one example of that: branch 251 victims 63 (freshly killed), 64, 65, (dead a week), and 67 (recent kill). I can't find 66. It might be one of the thousands that are missing, or one of the few in this stretch that's out-of-sequence.

Note: Mouaz Moustafa is a member of this SAFMCD and is also, usually, the public translator for "Caesar" when he appears. No wonder they both seem to believe in this absurd reading. Moustafa is also a Syrian-American, not a Syrian, working in the "Government Relations" industry in Washington DC, a John McCain-affiliated director of the "Syrian Emergency Task Force" team pushing for the overthrow of Syria's government. They do this with reasoning and moral pretexts improvised from truth, lies, or whatever they find. Here he is giving a guided tour of the photos to Dubliners who seem to me more skeptical than he realized.

Hospital #: Final Index for Retrieval?
My guess is that there's a detailed file associated at the branch for each of these unidentified victims, accessible by that number. Or, if the branch part is fake, the file is at the hospital, attached to the bottom number (or the real hospital number if these too are faked).

After the cataloging wherever, I suppose the bodies would be buried in a government-run cemetery, as "Caesar" and the rest claim. If there's even a first stop, then in between I'm guessing there's a last stop and final audit. Bodies would be documented one last time, correlated with any prior numbers, and gathered in sufficient numbers to justify a trip to one of the cemeteries north of town (or wherever exactly they were buried). And this is military hospital 601, where "Caesar" worked.

It must be noted that burial under a number system in a government-run cemetery doesn't necessarily mean mass graves or dumping secrets. In Muslim countries, it's a moral imperative to bury the victims in soil within one day of death if possible, even if they have to be exhumed and re-buried later. When morgues are full, there are hundreds more to refrigerate, families have a hard time crossing battle lines to come identify people, etc. one might have no choice but the proper one of storage in dirt. 

If finally someone comes in and recognizes a photo, they'll have these numbers and photos to follow. The Hospital 601 number should then be correlated with a grave site number, and should lead right to the victim's remains for reclamation, when that's possible.

But that's just my guess. Most people accept that these numbers are to verify the regime's evil plans were carried through, to conceal original prisoner identity, and launder their deaths as "heart attacks" at the hospital. As evidence for that, I believe, "Caesar" produced one or a few death certificates for heart attack victims he swears were actually among these 100% torture victims. And they might well be - several combat death, a couple natural causes, and mainly executed detainees - of someone.

Who Wrote the Numbers?
Considering the observations above, we should see on the victims and their index cards two different death numbers, ostensibly from two different facilities both recording the fact. HRW's report relates on page 9 how the first number is written at the security branch: "Former detainees reported seeing numbers written on the bodies of dead detainees or on cards, before guards removed the bodies from security branches."

This is the supposed detainees - brought forth to confirm Caesar's story - specifying that the numbers were part of the broader system. From things they were lucky enough to see first-hand, they knew the numbers were not something, for example, that "Caesar" made up on his own initiative at the hospital 601 garage. Nor were they something official that was only set at the hospital. Nor, they're clear, does this numbering system document anything other than killed detainees. They're clear it all shows branch-hospital cooperation in mass murder and mass cover-up.

The bottom hospital number would presumably be set at the garage, based on order of body processing there. So if what HRW heard is true, the numbers would be not just assigned but written in two different places.

The blue ink lines on the hand holding the card in this SAFMCD photo from the 4-6-2013 folder.  Cards and/or bodies are being at least partly filled in here, by these guys.  It's probably the same color on that card, although it's hard to be sure with that deep blur. Also note it seems to be the same color of ink on top and bottom. That's consistent with just some writing happening here, and it's consistent with a completely on-site operation, as the witnesses were clear to argue away.
Let's compare this to an unusual but instructive case. As listed in the SAFMCD database, victim 63 from low-kill branch 248 (military investigation Branch), in a folder dated July 26, 2013. This is a teenage boy who's been seriously starved, had his eyes damaged, perhaps chemically, his neck lightly burned/irritated, and has a trace of orange mucous/blood from his nose. Victims 62 and 64 and others listed near him show similar signs but in different combinations. Now see fuller view below (original - direct link, Zaman al-Wasl article).

Seen: an unclear 4-digit number over 215 was first written on his chest, then mostly washed off and written over with 62/248. The card held seems to have agreed, originally, with the second number. But then “Caesar” changed the photo later, painting over the 2 and replacing it with a 3, so 63/248, as listed by SAFMCD (and there is a taken 62 slot, with no body shot to see if that was ever changed). Further, the bottom number was changed from 44??/b to 4450/b.

The same color of blue ink was used on his body and for all numbers on the card, though possibly with two different markers at two different places. On the card, we can see possibly two types of handwriting, but the same color and gauge of marker at least. It's likely but not certain that everything here was written at the same place, perhaps by "Caesar" and an accomplice. In other cases, it may be different.

Some possibilities for this scene:
* Branch 248 wrote ????/215 on the boy's chest in error, forgetting who they were. Caesar corrected them based on the card they wrote saying 62/248, filled in the bottom number in the same color ink - but then decided later on that the original 62 he used to correct his other error was wrong (because??), and he changed it with after effects, besides the bottom number he threw off.
* The branch wrote 62/248 on the card, and nothing on the body. Caesar goofed up the body writing and then changed it to match. The bottom number was filled in then, or was already done – but it was done wrong (?) and so he changed that in the photo, as well as the original 62.
* Nothing was written at 248, if the body was even there. Caesar wrote this out for 215, maybe just by reflex or because that's all they were processing at the time. Then he realized some detail about the boy that, for whatever he knew about 248 and those running it, meant they should be blamed - or they were just short on 248 victims and he would be a perfect fit, or whatever. But he forgot there was already a 62, and had to change it later. And the hospital number, because that was 62's number. Did this boy replace an original 63 perhaps?
* Caesar goofed this up on purpose, hoping someone like me would make a big deal over what actually seems to be an odd an isolated case. Well, I don't see a reason to make a big deal over this, yet - but it's confusing, and maybe eventually it will seem more important. And it was a good excuse to stop and wonder, which has been in short order with regards to “Caesar” and his claims.

Update: An inverse example from the above. This entry does not show any number on the body but instead on forehead tape. It says 2008, with no branch specified. Someone clearly at the morgue and not the security branch goofed up the card to say victim and branch # 2008/b (again, /b was the morgue's running suffix at the time - the bottom number should be xxxx/b)). Only later did "Caesar" or whoever notice the error, and paint 215 over b. That seems reasonable enough, on a bad day...and it means in at least this case, the cards were being entirely written out at the morgue. If that were the case in the example above, if the boy had nothing written on his chest (only logical), nothing on his forehead as we see (or was that removed to aid the transfer? Ha! Look closely - there was tape there once.), and he had no prewritten card (or it was tossed?) ... then what did Caesar use to correct his own /215 body writing error?

Previous Example: Deraa
An old example might help or confuse things here. Hamza al-Khatib was a plump 13-year-old or a plumber-yet full sized man, depending on if you believe activists and media or doctors and photos. He was famously killed back on  the night of April 29, 2011 in Deraa, during torture in a prison or in clashes at the military housing complex, depending who you ask .

He was apparently processed at Deraa's national hospital as an unidentified victim of the clashes, later identified and handed back to his family, according to official sources. But he was examined by coroner Dr. Akram al-Shar, who's mentioned in SNHR report as the head of forensic science at hospital 601 where the "Caesar" photos were taken. Thus they find him among the "most significant" of those "involved in the crimes."

Anyway, it seems Deraa's military hospital used a similar system to that under study, but used for unidentified, found bodies instead of for tortured detainees. Al-Shar's examination should have been secure and official, and it used eastern Arabic numbers, here 23. There's no torture branch indicated, but authorities published these photos, so maybe this is the "clean" version? So who was responsible for this clear ... hole-punching with a huge electric drill I guess, aging to adult, significant fattening, and partial decay of that poor little 13-year-old boy? Hard to say, but they definitely work for Assad, right?</sarcasm>

Note: according to the SNHR report, the biggest portion of identified "Caesar" photo victims - 204 out of 722 - are from Deraa.  So a doctor, a number system, and a lot of victims allegedly link Damascus and Deraa throughout this story.

Official-Rebel Hybrid ID System? 
(added Feb. 7)
A point that occurred to me later is the similarity of the forehead tape to a system I've seen used before - in rebel areas. This was the Ghouta chemical massacre of August 21, 2013, with hundreds killed allegedly by Sarin rockets (which is also just after "Caesar" fled Syria with his last gathered photos). Below is a boy victim, #86 (see also here), of a purported 800 numbered, unidentified victims, and perhaps zero that anyone knew immediately. (source f/c). Signs say that's because they were people held captive by local terrorist groups, who wound up burying them in mass graves somewhere, after a token few were claimed by alleged family on video.

So here the tape records victim of (regime rocket? rebel prisons/gas chambers?). We know reels use this system, but it could be something everyone does.

In the Caesar photos, we see the killers do the same, but with a branch number added beside it. Unlike the later victims, these were passed through the system as un-identified, or at least coded in a system very similar to that for mystery bodies; they get the official-style card documentation seen with little Hamza (left). Unlike Hamza (identified and then handed back to family) and the Ghouta mass gave burials, the "Caesar" photo victims had to be buried by the government in cemeteries they ran.

Combining those precedents, this happenstance hybrid system could show a Ghouta-style mystery person - a victim of (regime prison/gas chamber? rebel prison/gas chamber? other/unclear?) - numbered like rebels at least do it, and then passed through the official system as well. In the example here, only a hospital number is shown, as with Hamza. In most other cases, the cards "Caesar" or a teammate write up "confirm" the branch number ... which was written there first by local terrorists, for all we know. 

The number system doesn't seem, in itself, to contain anything to undo "Caesar's" story. It could go either way in showing a seen 7,000, and implied 11,000+ men and boys killed in or near Damascus since the outsider-supported uprising began in 2011.

(More detailed summary of actual findings, forthcoming...)

The core questions remain when, where, how, and by whom they were actually killed. The answer to that is likely to be mixed, but we can't call it mixed/unknown and walk away, nor can we accept "Caesar's" claim these were all "regime" detainees. On this scale, with the horrible abuses seen, the proportions of the mixture must be carefully considered. And clearly the universal activist story of "tortured to death in a regime prison" has been highly overrated, from the little Hamza story up until now.


  1. Just a thought: I wonder if the branch number doesn't refer to the victim at all.. maybe instead of "branch that detained victim", it's "photographer from branch"?

    If the photos were actually taken by people drafted in from intelligence branches of course.

    It would explain the changing numbers - they could start by sharing out the work by numbering and marking which ones they'll do. If one photographer misses a body, tries to help out or messes up the numbering they just rub it out. Doing their numbering independently, they add their identifier (branch) to try and keep it a unique reference to the unknown victim.

    Might explain the seemingly inserted photos and mistakes- a visiting photographer, maybe filling in for one of the regulars, didn't label and number their photos properly so whoever found them didn't know whose work it was. Then renamed and just shared some out to each photographer's folder. If their performance is rated by amount they produce, sharing it equally may seem fair?

    I don't know if all this fits.

  2. Good thinking cap work, Andrew. I haven't 100% ruled out that it's a documentation system. But MI branches have little business just taking pictures. They might want copies, but this seems like more basic work for an army photographer at the hospital.

    There were likely a few people total working on it, so fill-ins making mistakes is possible. (the 2008/b case for example). The Hospital # insertions are pretty clear in being a big after-the-fact laundering of about 200 entries by re-branding the hospital's body #, no mistake there. Maybe an initial mistake where the numbers were lost, or never assigned (terrorist error), requiring this creating of numbers.

    The main thing about the numbers is they're written on before death, it seems. When they cough up blood hanging upside down, it often rolls up over the tape, soaking it and making it hard to read. I think it's basically a killed-in order for the terrorists' different "MI branch" subsets.

    But others say it's a death order in the MI branch or most say it's assigned on transfer, and so they're being killed in the same order they come in, which is pretty systematic evil, and I think ridiculous.

    1. It would be bizarre.. and the obvious question would be why even bother with the tape, numbers and sending the body to hospital anyway? Just amend records, phone the doctor (who was apparently willing to make up the cause of death) for hospital numbers and to arrange death certificate.

      They don't need 'secret identity codes' and attached branch numbers, I can't see any logic in involving anyone like "Caesar". It does seem like someone trying to fit a convoluted explanation around the purpose behind some photos they 'obtained'.

      The bodies are supposedly grouped by that number at the hospital, "Caesar" says there were about a dozen photographers in his team.. we have about a dozen folder names. Maybe coincidence!


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