In a recent interview held in Damascus, a US news reporter grilled Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad with a barrage of questions surrounding allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes against the Syrian government, in a tense interview that at times saw Assad seemingly catch the Yahoo News reporter off guard with his sharp responses.
Source: Syrian Arab News Agency
Date: 10 February, 2017
I was asking you before about potential cooperation between the United States and Syria. But the problem that many would have with that is the continued allegations of human rights abuses by your government. Now just today, we have a new report from Amnesty International about Saydnaya prison, ‘human slaughterhouse’ they call it, 5,000 to 13,000 detainees hanged in mass hangings there. Horrific conditions. Trials of blindfolded prisoners, one to three minutes in length. No lawyers. Secret, all in secret. These, this would on its face be contrary to every aspect of international law. What do you know about what’s going on in that prison?
Let’s first of all talk about the first part of your question, which is the problem how to – for the United States – to open relation with Syria regarding the human rights. I will ask you, how could you have this close, very close relation and team relation with Saudi Arabia? Do you consider behaving as a human right – criteria?
Yes, but I’m not interviewing the King of Saudi Arabia right now. I’m – I’m interviewing you.
Yeah, I know, but –
I’m asking you about reports of human rights abuses in your prison, in your country –
Yeah, of course, yeah – yeah. You own the question, I own the answers. So that’s my answer. So when you answer about Saudi Arabia and your relation, you can put yourself in that position. Second, the United States is in no position to talk about human rights. Since Vietnam war till this moment, they killed millions of civilians. If you don’t want to talk about the 1.5 million in Iraq without any assignment by the Security Council. So the United States is in no position to say, “I don’t open– relations because of human rights.” And they have to use one standard. This is first.
The second part now. Now I can move to…that report, like many other reports – published by
Amnesty International – put into question the credibility of Amnesty International. And we never look at it as unbiased. It’s always biased and politicized. And it’s shame for such (an) organization to publish a report without a shred of evidence. If you, they said, it’s “based on interviews – on interviews.” What about the document? What – what about – the concrete evidence? Not single concrete –
Interviews with four former prison officials and guards, three former Syrian judges, three doctors at the prisons.
It means nothing.
It means nothing?
No – no, it’s interview. No – no, you – you, when you be – when you need to make a report, you need evidence, concrete evidence. You can make any report. You can pay money to anyone like Qatar did last year. They paid money for such a report, and they brought their own witnesses. And they made a report. So basically –
I want to just read you something from the report. “The process of the hangings is authorized by officials at the highest levels of the government. Death sentences are approved by the Grand Mufti of Syria and by either the Minister of Defense or the Chief of Staff of the Army who are deputized to act on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.
First of all, what (is) the evidence? So this is first.
Is it true or not?
Second – no– no, it’s not true, definitely not true.
How do you know? Do you know what goes on in that prison? Have you been there?
No, I haven’t been. I – I’ve been in the presidential palace. Not in the prison.
So here you have a very disturbing report about something going on in one of your prisons. Are you going to investigate it?
So – so Amnesty International knows more about Syria than me, according to you. No, that’s not true. No. They – they haven’t been to Syria. They only base their reports on allegations. They can bring anyone, doesn’t matter what’s his title. You can forge anything these days. And we’re living in a ‘fake news’ era, as you know. Everybody knows this. So we don’t have to depend on this. Second, you have to talk about reality. They said in – in their– report that we made “serial executions.” Is that correct? What they mentioned –
Yes, mass hangings.
First of all, execution is part of the Syrian law. If the Syrian government or institution wants to do it, they can make it legally because it’s been there for decades.
Secret trials. No lawyers?
Why do they need it? If they can make it legally. They don’t need anything secret.
Is that legal in your country?
Yeah – yeah, of course it’s legal. For decades since the independence, the execution, according to the law after a trial is a legal action. Like – any other court in many countries in this region.
Will you allow international monitors to visit that prison and inspect and investigate these reports?
It depends on the credibility of that organization. Not anyone. Cause they’re going to use just to demonize the Syrian government more and more and more, like what’s happening.
This is not the first time that very serious human rights allegations have been made. Just last week a woman in Spain, Syrian – filed a lawsuit – accusing nine of your senior government intelligence and security officials of human rights abuses. Her brother had disappeared in one of your prisons. You asked about documents – the lawyers who have filed this accusing your government of human rights abuses, have collected 3,000 pages of evidence. And over 50,000 photographs taken by one of your former government’s photographers, showing emaciated, tortured bodies in your prisons.
Who verified the pictures? Who verified that they’re not edited and photo-shopped and so on?
Have you seen the photos?
No, I didn’t.
Have you seen the photos?
No, no, no. I saw – I saw some photos in previous reports. But it’s not about the photo. How can you verify the photo?
You have said that the –
Do you have a photo?
I do have the photos.
Can you show it to me?
Yes, I’d be happy to. Here.
Okay. This photo – have you verified who are those?
I can tell you –
Because you have it and because you mention it in – in front of your audience.
There’s a number of photos…
You have to convince your audience. You cannot mention such a picture without verifying who are those and where and everything about it, just to put it in front of the audience and tell them, “Oh they – they’ve been killed by the Syrian soldiers.”
The woman who filed the lawsuit, the Syrian woman who filed the lawsuit says, she saw her brother in those photographs.
At the end…these are allegations. You have to talk about concrete evidence, at the end. That’s – that’s how you can base your judgment. Anyone can say whatever he wants.
You said that you believe these photos may have been doctored. The U.S. State Department gave these photos to the American F.B.I. Crime Lab, digital lab. They examined these photos and said, “The bodies and scenes depicted,” this – these are 242 of these images, “The bodies and the scenes depicted exhibit no artifacts or inconsistencies that would indicate they have been manipulated. As a result of the above observations, all of these 242 images appear to depict real people and events.”
Who said that?
The FBI. Have you seen their report?
No. When was that?
That was – 2015.
Yeah, the question: when your institutions were honest about what’s happening in Syria. That’s the question. Never. For us, never. So we don’t have to rely on what they say. Whether, if the FBI says something, it’s not some – something, it’s not evidence for anyone, especially – for us.
The most important thing. If you take these photos to any court in your country, could they convict any criminal regarding these? Could they tell you what – what this crime, who committed? If you don’t have this full picture, you cannot make judgment. It’s just propaganda. It’s just fake news. They want to demonize the Syrian government. In every war, you can have any individual crime. It happened here (and) all over the world – anywhere. But it’s not a policy – it’s not policy –
But let me just – if I hear what you’re saying, the F.B.I. is just forwarding propag– prop– propagating propaganda. Amnesty International is propagating propaganda. Everybody is conspiring against the Syrian government. Why?
Ask them. We’re not – we don’t have –
You’re the one – you’re the one making the allegation.
No – no. I’m not making allegation. They supported the terrorists, and you go back to what they said. John Kerry, few months ago said – and – by his voice – that “We were watching ISIS – advancing and we expected the Syrian president to make concessions.” What does it mean? Obama said it in – in interview in – in one of his speeches that “The war in Iraq created ISIS.”
So who supported ISIS? We didn’t create it. You created it. The United States created all this mess. Who supported the rebels and called them “moderate rebels,” while they became ISIS and Al-Nusra in Syria? We didn’t. So it’s not a conspiracy. These are facts. This is reality. We didn’t give money, we didn’t support these terrorists. Your country supported them. U.K., France publicly, and they said they sent armaments. We didn’t. So you can take that…it’s not my allegation. It’s your – official allegation including Joe Biden, the vice president of Obama. He said about Saudi Arabia and other countries supporting these extremists…
That’s Saudi Arabia, but the United States and its –
So if it’s allegation, it’s their allegation. It’s American allegation before it’s been Syrian allegation.
The United States and its coalition partners have been bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It’s supporting the Iraqi Army in its efforts to liberate Mosul from ISIS. How can you say that the United States is supporting ISIS?
Can you explain to me how could they defeat ISIS. in Iraq, and ISIS was expanding since the American coalition started attacking Syria?
Is it expanding now?
It’s been expan – no.
Is it expanding now?
It started shrinking after the Russian intervention, not the American one. How could they use our field or oil fields and export with thousands of barrel – of barrel trucks to Turkey, without being seen by your drones and by your satellites, while the Russians could be able to do so and attack them and destroy them? Destroy all their facilities. How? Yes, this is cosmetic campaign against ISIS.
Just to be clear. I have shown you the F.B.I. report. I have shown you the photographs. I’ve shown you the Amnesty International report. Will you cooperate in investigations to determine if these very serious reports are in fact true?
You showed me many things, but you didn’t show me a single evidence.
I showed you an FBI report.
No – no. It’s not evidence at all. It’s – it’s actually the contrary. Any American institutions for us during the Syrian crisis was against the reality, was the opposite of the truth. That’s how we look at it. So it’s not Syrian institution. We don’t care about what they say.
For me, what I care about is what reports I have from Syrian people. And we had investigations because we have many claims regarding not the mass crimes, actually more individual – acts. And we’ve been investigating many. And many people were punished. But that happens in every war.
Do you, are you disturbed enough about any of this to try to determine the truth yourself?
I think if you’d show it to the Western officials, to ask them that question, “Are they disturbed to see what’s happening since they started supporting the terrorists in Syria, this killing, and this destruction?” That’s the question. Of course I’m disturbed. I’m Syrian. I have this natural –
You are disturbed about this. About these reports –
What – what’s happening in Syria. No – no, not about the report. I don’t care about the –
Not – not about this, okay.
No – no. I’m disturbed about what’s happening in Syria. It’s my country. It’s being destroyed by proxy terrorists, of course.
You have acknowledged that your troops in this war have committed “mistakes” in its prosecution against the rebels and that “anyone could be punished.” So how many mistakes are we talking about?
No I didn’t say that. I never said – I said, there are always mistakes in any action. That’s a human –
So how many mistakes are we talking about? How many – how many innocent civilians have been killed by your government’s mistakes?
Nobody knows, because thousand and thousand of those are missing people. Nobody knows anything about their fate. Nobody at all. So – you cannot tell till the end of this war.
Was it a mistake to bomb hospitals in Aleppo?
We never bombed hospitals in Aleppo. Why to bomb hospitals? Can you convince your your audience that we have interests in bombing hospitals? Actually this is against our interests. So this is against our interest to bomb hospitals, if it’s used as hospital. And the prove that it was a lie, every time they talk about bombing hospital, every time they say, “This is the last hospital in Eastern part of Aleppo.” And the second time, they they talk about another hospital and they say the same. They bombed the last hospital, so it’s lies and lies and lies. We can spend the whole interview talking about lies, and we can talk about the truth and reality. I have to talk about reality.
Is it a mistake to use barrel bombs and chlorine gas?
You have to choose which part of the narrative is correct. Once they said we are using “indiscriminate bombs,” and they called it – barrel bombs. The other day, they said we – “targeted hospitals and schools and convoys.” We either have precise armaments or we have indiscriminate armaments. So which one do you choose?
Will you – you do acknowledge though that innocent civilians, there have been civilian casualties in this war?
Yes, of course. Every war is a bad war – every war is a bad war. We cannot talk about good war. Let’s agree about this. Every war has casualty. Every war has innocent people to pay the price. This is the bad thing about war. That’s why we need to end that war. But having casualty doesn’t mean not to defend our country against the terrorists and against the invasion from abroad through those proxies by foreign countries, like the Western countries and the regional ones. That’s self-evident.