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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mahmoud Al-Zoubi: #CaesarPhotos Victim Profile

Mahmoud Al-Zoubi: #CaesarPhotos Victim Profile
May 7, 2016
Last edits June 12

Matching Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Zoubi
As far as I know, this is my own original identification (match-up), although the victim is mildly famous, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone else has noted it somewhere. Alleged Air Force intelligence torture victim j-000 (no #) from 5-2011 folder. This elderly man has a unique face with distinct pattern of marks, flattened nose and eyelids, etc. The killers apparently left him face down somewhere before the photo was taken.

It should be noted hardly any entries from 2011 appear in the photo catalog at SAFMCD. As I compiled these here at ACLOS, he's  perhaps the earliest entry (one of 2 in the 5-2011 folder with none earlier and, as I'll explain, he probably died and was photographed just before May began.)

I've been studying the 2011 'Saida Massacre,' that claimed the life of 13-year-old Hamza Al-Khatib among others (events and boy re-considered together here) In the course of this, I ran across this video of one victim: Tortured martyr Mahmoud Abdulrahman Al Zoubi of Al-Musayfirah 23/5/2011. I instantly recognized him as looking just like J-000.
Comparing the images, I confirmed these must be the one and the same man.  His nose distortion is perhaps different, but there are the same uneven lips and teeth, same beard and eyebrows with same light and dark patches, and the same dark micro-injuries on the face (below left eye, above right eye, etc.) Amnesty International's report (PDF) mentions "There were reportedly marks on his face that looked like cigarette burns." We can skip "reportedly." Also note the forehead tape with unclear writing (see below) - the blur on the right follows the curve of that big 'backwards C' we can see in the unblurred video view on the left.

The video allows more views of unclear injuries to the right knee and left hand, and small stab wounds in the top of his head, with glimpses of bone inside. That's some sophisticated "torture," huh? These aren't clearly fatal, but nothing else seen fits the bill either.

This is Mahmoud Ahmad Abdulrahman, 73, the oldest victim of the "Saida Massacre" (up to 52 victims - see full victim list/table here at ACLOS) - 24 by "shooting," 28 arrested or bodies taken). He's listed in Amnesty International's report as Mahmoud Abd al-Rahman al-Zu’bi, aged 72. So combined, he should be Mahmoud Ahmed Abdulrahman Al-Zoubi, probably 73. Either way, he seems to be the oldest among the men and boys arrested from the protest April 29, including Hamza al-Khatib - all taken alive, we heard, and only killed later, with plenty of time to think it through and with unhinged brutality anyway.

How and when he died
Activists say...
So, check the back-story - they say it's airtight. Sheikh Mahmoud has more story than most. Activist told Amnesty International he and 20 others were in a van, apparently at the head of the column. When the shooting started, everyone jumped out and hid in the orchards. After 20 minutes of shooting, it became lighter and more sporadic. At this point, the report says: 
  "...the eyewitness and others hiding near him, including Mahmoud al-Zu’bi, started consulting each other on how to escape and decided to take it in turns to run away between the shooting. However, he then saw the soldiers approaching them so all of those remaining started running towards some nearby bushes. Mahmoud al-Zu’bi was apparently unable to escape due to his advanced years. The eyewitness learned later that he had been arrested that day..." 
The witness said they didn't see the sheikh arrested, because it was behind them as they were running away. That makes sense. 

The image is of security forces running around after people like they're chasing chickens, grabbing the belts or shirt collars of the slow, maybe shooting the feet from beneath the faster ones, arresting everyone they could after the ambush. This is the accepted version, by the human rights professionals - this is how he, Hamza, and the rest were first taken in.

Video record and alternate theory
However, we should note the video record does not support that (see here at ACLOS). The main video, Vid1, covers over 35 minutes of the incident, with unknown segments cut out. In fact sunlight angles suggest it runs over 2 hours, from around 2:10 to 4:10 PM. At no point do we see soldiers come out of the base to arrest anyone. They might have swarmed out later on, or in one of the cut parts (but why?). And at about 2 hours, there was plenty of time before that to escape the danger zone on foot. Consider the scene maps at ACLOS and the views below - top view is looking back east, the way they came, and bottom is looking west towards the base full of soldiers and their families.  West, more shooting worries: people abandoned vehicles and hid. East, not so much. 

The van is probably the furthest out to the west, seen on the shoulder just past the compound's main gate,  just off frame in the bottom view. But they could creep further out into the orchards, then back east to the safer zone and re-join the 1.5 km-long caravan at that point and get a ride back to safety. It's a long creep, but every bit of it would get you closer to safety. 

Instead, we hear, everyone was waiting for a long time to even start moving, about 20 minutes, and then shortly after were left running from and getting nabbed by invisible soldiers like there was no other choice. I say invisible because no one is seen crossing that red line and moving remotely in the direction of the people cowering to the left of frame.But of course, the activist claims he saw them, so ... the evidence conflicts on the invisibility issue.

Video evidence wins such conflicts, and invisible soldiers don't exist, so ... anyone detained in the first 35 minutes to two hours of this murky incident would probably be seized by someone among the hundreds of "protesters" that had swarmed all over the area. 

Consider: was it just slowness that let Mahmoud get arrested, or something that runs in the family? He was just one of 16 men and boys named Al-Zoubi who were killed in the massacre (per the table linked above) - about 1/3 of the total number. (Amnesty only lists 20 detainees, including only 7 al-Zoubis.) Of those 16, eight are listed as arrested/bodies taken and perhaps tortured, and eight as simply shot, with rebels retrieving the bodies. The other Zoubis were aged 17-70, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and no reason to all be slow. It's a common name, and relationships aren't clear, but this might suggest targeting, for unknown reasons. 
My working theory is this - the victims were all pre-selected as sacrificial lambs and encouraged to come along. The chubby kid is included - perfect. Then when the shooting started (probably triggered by the opposition side, from one of the nearby buildings they had already occupied), they hid off the road, behind trees, and maybe inside buildings like the rest. Some of the hardcore Muslim Brotherhood guys there took the victims aside, maybe in a couple of groups, and shot them dead. 

Some - about half - were claimed and taken away, along with anyone actually shot by the compound's defenders during the murky "clashes." The rest were mutilated as "tortured detainees" and left behind with no ID and maybe no clothes. These bodies would be found somewhere in the area after the clashes, and documented by the forces of order.  If they were unidentified victims, they might get ID numbers - like 4, 10, 12, 22, 23, 28 ... all seen on the returned bodies, for an incident with a total of maybe 28 "tortured detainees" (see table). 
All these were seen on video because the bodies were handed over to families, instead of disappeared. They all show signs of decay, moderate to serious (see analysis of the "green torso torture" - graphic). They were clearly held for several weeks, but with good refrigeration, they might have been dead the entire time. In the May 23 video, sheikh Al-Zoubi's body appears less pink and more gray than we see in the morgue photo, but looks better than most - the green is worse with others and gets worse over time, suggesting all these victims had died long before acknowledged, and all at about the same time - likely just before their alleged arrests. 

Damascus or Deraa?
The "Caesar photos" are said to all be from military hospitals 601 or Tishreen, in Damascus. Mahmoud is included, but he and the rest were arrested/killed in Deraa, and handed back to family there. It's said, by the absurd "Abu Hamza" that little Hamza Al-Khatib - who also disappeared and re-appeared in Deraa - was transferred to and killed in Damascus in between. So presumably the old man and everyone else was too. Mahmoud got a special transfer to get stabbed in the head as close to president Assad as possible, and Hamza got to piss on Assad's portrait and laugh at his torturers before he was killed, right there in the capitol (again, see "Abu Hamza"). 

As compelling as that logic might be, it's all unlikely. They were probably all killed in Deraa on April 29, and dead bodies would probably stay there, presumably close to unidentified family. There's no reason to transfer a corpse back and forth like that. And even if they were held and killed, there's no clear reason to send it to the capitol first.

In May?
I think he died April 29, so if the "Caesar photos" folder for May, 2011 starts on 1 May and only includes photos from then and after, as seems to be the usual pattern, then I suspect it was put here falsely. That would be to support the idea the people were killed in May, mostly late in the month, or even later, knowing this victim would be recognized eventually.

Other visual clues
The valuable video of sheikh Al-Zoubi's body (a copy is saved here) shares other visual evidence. Supposedly official paperwork is held-up, read out and maybe commented on - translation, possibly, in time. 

Before that, they show his ID card, which is interesting. If he were an unidentified body, as I suspect, the government didn't have this card. Most people would carry it on them, but he must have left his at home for activists to later have it to show on video? Or did they take it from him right before they killed him? Or, did the government have it the whole time after his arrest after all, and handed it back with his body, belying their claim to not know who that was? Why belie? 

Most victims seen after return are documented with an index card, somehow adhered to the body (usually the chest), with a small number written on it. This is strange. Hamza's at least, however, seems to be the same one used in his morgue photos. Sheikh Al-Zoubi is unusual in having his numbers written on what seems to be tape instead of a card, and he has such writing on both his forehead and chest, shown at right.

chest: pretty hard to make out yet, no clear view.  Not even sure if that's all numbers, letters, or what... (some effort maybe later)

Forehead, also unclear/indecipherable. On the right is not J (  ج ) for AF intel, but maybe the letters for Z or R sound  ( ر-  ز ). The little circle above, unclear if separate ... On the left, a symbol like the Greek pi - It's not a number or letter I recognize. Between, a Roman letter V or #7 in Eastern Arabic, with another circle inside it. (or an 8, if upside-down, also with an extra circle...)

Is this why the SAFMCD left him as victim #000? Even they couldn't decipher this mess? Is it even legit, or placed by activists once the body was returned? Or before it was even taken? The morgue photo suggests it was there shortly after death anyway. 

Later note, June 12: ACLOS member TogetherSy (see here) notes the forehead tape is jumbled - that could be a 7 or and 8 originally, but with garbage added. TS does note if rotated 180 degrees, it comes out as a sloppy rendition of the relevant date - 23/5/2011 (I can see this, once it's pointed out). So that might explain the mess there. Here's the explanation: with slashes and underlines in black, 23 in red, 5 in purple, 2011 in blue. The apparent original number is in green. By vertical centering and logic, I think it's upside down here and was a 7. It would be underlined to clarify that, and that underline became part of the super-deformed 3. Weird. But what else can it be? 

Opposition Narrative
June 12 update: Thanks to TogetherSy, we have a translation of the video (see here). Summarized a bit, the activists with the sheikh's ID card and access to his body say:
This man with grey hair, who is over 72 years old, was arrested in the act of reading Quran while he was on his way to Daraa, to break the siege [imposed] on his people there. And the massacre of Saida happened on 4/29/2011 and he lost his life due to torture [inflicted] by the hands of this unjust regime & its people. Don't they feel shy from his grey hair? Don't they think? And till when will this oppression [last]? These are the reforms promised by Bashar Al-Assad!
... He doesn't kneel but to Allah and it was asked of him to kneel to the photograph of Bashar Al-Assad, but he refused and was killed for that.
... (he was tortured) under electricity, by sticks, with electric batons - these burns by cigarettes and electricity and the beatings on the head and feet until he was killed. We ask [Allah] to grant him martyrdom and thanks to Allah the lord of all.

TS notes "The narration is an agitation message delivered in a religious sermon style. The narrator mimics the style & tone of mosque preachers in Friday prayers." Indeed, the content is just as Islamist-leaning. Mahmoud, the oldest identified victim, was ordered to kneel to a photo of Assad but fatally refused? That's just what "Abu Hamza" says about little Hamza (the youngest victim) ... and about what another guy said about the second-youngest, Thamer Al-Sharei. Huh. 

TS also passes on the document's contents:
From 0:17 till 00:58 a photocopy of a hand written paper claimed to be the report of the forensic department in the hospital of Daraa is presented. Most of the paper is not clear, but the photographer is interested in only showing the photocopied stamp of the Forensic Department in Daraa Hospital which is in the lower left corner of the paper along with an indiscernible signature of a doctor & the date 23 May 2011. Then he focuses on the lower right corner that bears the words: "photo copy of the original" under the red stamp of the hospital. It is noticeable that there should be the signature of the person authenticating the photocopy of the document along with the stamp, but here it is lacking.
The photographer then shows us the last line of the paper, which [surprisingly] reads:
    سبب الوفاة توقف القلب (الناتج): التالي لشدة نفسية ناجمة عن العنف والتعذيب
    Heart arrest due to psychological distress caused by violence and "torture". [A phrase opposition members always claim that regime hospitals never issue to them]
The document claims heart attack as the cause of death, which makes sense; as noted, there aren't any visible wounds that are likely to be fatal. 

It's well worth noting this is almost the template for the general Caesar photos narrative - taken and tortured to death, but given papers blaming a simple heart attack. Except here, they say it was heart attack from torture. Why admit it? They'd say they weren't admitting it, and they found him already dead after the abuses. But the activists here are clear he was tortured by them, and this is a direct admission of the fact. 

Either way, it's quite possible that this episode, and Mahmoud's case in particular, might be where "Caesar" or whoever first got the idea to produce and document a few thousand such victims.

Questions re-answere
Some evidence is available and some is missing, but so far we can piece together an unusually clear picture for this one Caesar Photos secret detainee.

When was he detained?
Allegedly: the afternoon of April 29, 2011. Quite likely: never, by the government.

How was he arrested? 
Allegedly, from the middle of a protest at the military housing complex, when security forces overran it. Really, since that's not seen on video, he was probably arrested killed from the middle of the same "protest," by some of the "protesters." 

When was he killed? 
under question - folder suggests anytime in May, family has body May 23, I think April 29. Evidence and logic combine to suggest the latter.

How was he killed?
This isn't clear. The small stab wounds in the top of the head are likely not fatal. The document says heart attack, caused by the shock of torture (so that was done when alive, not post-death mutilation). This seems likely enough. The activists seemed to buy it.

Where was he buried?
This is an issue of some interest - it's said the bodies are burned away in an incinerator, or buried at a government-run cemetery north of Damascus. In this case, we'd have to ask his family, or dig for a video of the burial and geolocate it. He's not a secret detainee, and was handed over, albeit with the same strange delay all these people had. Most others probably were handled by the government, so this case may not shed much light on the question. 

What does this case say about the rest of the victims?
The facts of his case are in dispute, and he's an outlying case anyway, so the relevance isn't clear. But to the extent their stories might be something like his, let's recap what his story is most likely to be; 

a person killed and tortured/mutilated by terrorists, before he was found by government forces, stripped of ID. The inevitability of their taking the body and having to return it to family, but with a delay, means a chance to call it all detention and torture by them. This is exactly what I already suspected for a bulk of the "Caesar photo" victims. And so, this case might be a good illustration after all.  

As noted above, the heart attack claim could be where they originally got the idea to say the "regime" says that for everyone they kill here.

Open Questions:
A question: In the morgue photo, is the sharp light and dark just from photo-flash used in a normal room, or in an extra-dark location? The morgue photos of Hamza and Thamer don't have this effect. Is this even an actual morgue photo, or something else? I'm presuming it's legit, but that's not certain.

Another question: is that one question really worth another section? Maybe there will be 3 questions or more, in time.

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