Syria accused of torture and 11,000 executions
There is clear evidence that Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising, a report by three former war crimes prosecutors says.
The investigators examined thousands of still images of dead prisoners, many reportedly smuggled out by a defector.
A Syrian spokesman said the report had no credibility as it was commissioned by Qatar, which funds rebel groups.
The report comes a day before peace talks are due to begin in Switzerland.
The talks, known as "Geneva II", will open in Montreux, and continue in Geneva two days later.
It is seen as the biggest diplomatic effort yet to end the three-year conflict which has left more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced.
Meanwhile, in its annual report released on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch accuses Russia and China of allowing abuses to take place by blocking action through the UN.
It also accuses both government and pro-opposition forces of human rights abuses including torture and extrajudicial killings.
There have been many reports and much evidence collected by human rights groups and international investigators alleging systematic torture and killings in Syrian government detention centres.
But the latest report carries such allegations into a new dimension. The figure of 11,000 victims documented in the 55,000 photographs is clearly just the tip of the iceberg, representing the numbers in one location only, and with a large number of the images (27,000) taken by one official photographer.
This man, codenamed "Caesar", was later smuggled out of Syria and questioned by three top war crimes prosecutors for several days at an undisclosed location. They concluded that his testimony was "not only credible, but most compelling".
Issues of political motivation - the commissioning of the report by Qatar, and its release just before the Geneva talks - should not obscure the reality of the evidence produced.
Geneva II, it says, "shouldn't become the latest excuse to avoid action to protect Syrian civilians".'Significant starvation'
The report by the former war crimes prosecutors is based on the evidence of a defected military police photographer, referred to only as Caesar, who along with others reportedly smuggled about 55,000 digital images of some 11,000 dead detainees out of Syria.
He said his job had been to take photographs of corpses, both to allow a death certificate to be produced and to confirm that execution orders had been carried out.
"There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse," he is quoted as saying.
He did not claim to have witnessed killings or torture himself.
The photographs cover the period from the start of the uprising in March 2011 until August last year.
All but one of the bodies shown are male. Investigators say most were emaciated; many had been beaten or strangled.
Some had no eyes, and some showed signs of electrocution.
One of the authors of the report, Prof Sir Geoffrey Nice, told the BBC's Newsday programme that the scale and consistency of the killings provided strong evidence of government involvement that could support a criminal prosecution.
Forensic pathologist Stuart Hamilton told Newsday that in the images that he saw, a large number of detainees were showing "evidence of significant starvation".
Who is 'Caesar'?
- Source of roughly half of the 55,000 images
- Military police photographer who worked for the government for 13 years
- Since uprising of March 2011, his job was to photograph bodies of detainees believed to have died under torture
- "Significant number" of bodies show signs of starvation, other injuries include burns, bruising, gouged eyes, ligature marks indicating strangulation, and signs of electrocution
- Sent images to relative by marriage outside Syria
- "Caesar" and family smuggled out after he feared for his safety and amid psychological strain of work
He said many looked as if they had been bound or restrained.
The report says the images are "clear evidence" of "systemic torture and killing of detained persons by agents of the Syrian government".
However, a spokesman for the Syrian ministry of information, Bassam Abu Abdullah, questioned the report's evidence, telling the BBC it was unclear where the information had come from or if the photographs were "from Syria or from outside Syria".
He said he was "astonished" at the figure of 11,000 victims, saying it had not been raised before this report.
He said: "I doubt this report. We should check these photos. Who are these people? Where are the names? From which prisons? Who is this person who has the authority to have these photos?"
Mr Abdullah said the international courts should direct their questions to Qatar.
He said: "If Qatar financed this report, there is no credibility because Qatar is one of the states who financed international terrorism and who sent killers to Syria. We have professional killers inside Syria from around the world. We are defending ourselves."Boycott threat
The Syrian government and the main exiled opposition alliance, the National Coalition, are due to send delegates to the Geneva II conference, which begins on Wednesday.
A UN-backed meeting in 2012 issued the document and urged Syria to:
- Form transitional governing body
- Start national dialogue
- Review constitution and legal system
- Hold free and fair elections
US President Barack Obama telephoned Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to "discuss the issues of the conference", the Kremlin said.
On Monday, the UN's secretary general withdrew an invitation to Iran - a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - over its refusal to endorse the Geneva Communique, the plan for a transitional governing body agreed at a UN-backed meeting in 2012.
The invitation to Iran had angered the US, while the Coalition had threatened to pull out if the invitation was not rescinded. It has since confirmed it will attend.
It is unclear whether Iran will be able to join the talks when they move to Geneva.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran regretted that the invitation had been withdrawn "under pressure", while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said not inviting Iran was "a mistake".
He added: "There is no catastrophe, we will push for a dialogue between the Syrian parties without any preconditions."