Opinion: the film shows how activists collect and analyse information to bring perpetrators of state torture and violence to justice
Watching Bringing Assad to Justice while following events at the Belarusian-Polish border brings the interconnected nature of justice in this world to light. Ronan Tynan's documentary tells us about the efforts made by Syrian activists to hold decision-makers in the state accountable for their actions. We see grassroots activists, former prison inmates, forensic architects in the UK and lawyers worldwide take on those who managed prisons, protected the secrecy of torture dungeons or ordered torture to be carried out.
Many of the Syrian activists and lawyers we meet in the film are displaced in Europe as refugees or asylum-seekers. Many more could be facing the Polish army at the gates of the EU at this very moment. Their work relies on information gleaned from citizen journalists' videos uploaded online or from professional journalistic investigations. Seen in this perspective, the ban on reporters at the Belarusian-Polish border is both ironical and unsettling. Justice for Syria, in fact, literally starts at the sealed gates of the European Union these days.
But connecting the dots to expose contradictions and paradoxes, Bringing Assad to Justice is far from being a story of hopelessness. It is a story of redemption and determination. A thematic thread about information runs through the movie and the work that lawyers, academics and human rights activists do to collect and analyse it.
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Trailer for Bringing Assad to Justice
The documentary engages with the question of how to source information when you are removed from the place where it is - and how to use that information. On the one hand, we see survivors and lawyers using it to hold perpetrators accountable. On the other hand, we are presented with fake news and how information can be distorted by government bodies to back up specific narratives.
In the case of the war in Syria, the role played by Russian media and intelligence services is quite prominent in pushing a narrative that supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad and covers up its human rights violations. The movie offers concrete evidence of this by following the efforts of academics and activists to expose Russian entities and their work. It also reflects on the consequences of twisting information and derailing it from being at the service of truth and justice.
Tynan takes us on a journey around Europe, the US and Turkey to listen to lawyers and human rights activists from Syria and elsewhere, who have first-hand experience of state torture and violence, and who seek justice. For many of them, justice is a complex and layered concept. In the first place, it is about stopping perpetrators. One way to do this is to bring perpetrators and representatives of the Syrian regime in front of tribunals and courts. The movie follows two tracks here: the challenge of navigating international law to find a way to hold a regime accountable in a foreign tribunal, and the challenge to provide court evidence.
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From RTÉ 1's Six One News in 2016, an exhibition showing Syrian atrocities under the Assad regime goes on display in Dublin
Previous court cases involving different people – murdered international journalists such as Marie Colvin, Syrian activists and lawyers such as Mazen Darwish and Anwar al-Bunna – have offered numerous lessons to learn. By comparing and contrasting national and international legislation, and building on openings for legal action, European state courts have been able to sentence regime representatives and issue arrest warrants against decision-makers within the Syrian regime.
One question lingers: how do you source court evidence to show the Assad regime's guilt and complicity if you cannot get access to Syria? Bringing Assad to Justice shows the painstaking work of those who have collected and smuggled thousands of documents out of Syria. This evidence, which is held in a secret location in Europe, shows orders of targeted killings, unlawful detentions, torture and indiscriminate armed attacks on civilians such as the 'emptying’ of entire neighbourhoods.
These documents are corroborated and verified through YouTube videos, Instagram posts, social media and more traditional sources such as interviews and field investigations. Forensic architecture also provides important parts of the larger puzzle, reconstructing urban spaces and prison facilities thanks to the testimonies of former inmates today displaced in Europe.
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From IIEA in May 2018, film-maker Ronan Tynan discusses his Syria: The Impossible Revolution documentary
Bringing Assad to Justice is a fascinating journey into the inner workings and complications of both international law and the information world, and how the two can come together to serve the interests of survivors. These survivors are very clear on one point: it is not about us, or Syria, or Assad only. It is about bringing justice – or the hope of it – to all those whose lives are threatened by seemingly unaccountable state violence. Al-Bunna reminds us that bringing the Syrian regime’s representatives to court is about letting Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Sisi of Egypt and Erdogan of Turkey amongst others know that they are watched and that they should not get too comfortable. It is about saving millions of lives, al-Bunna concludes.
Last month, the first court hearing against rescue workers Sarah Mardini, a 25-year-old Syrian refugee, and Seán Binder, a 27-year-old German citizen who grew up in Ireland, took place in Greece. The criminalisation of aid workers is a well-known (and shameful) pattern deployed by liberal European democratic governments to stop, by any means, the cross-border movement of people seeking protection to Europe.
Mardini’s family flew from the very regime that European and US courts hold accountable for numerous human rights violations. It is the very regime that is comfortably watching the EU bargaining with other despotic regimes its silence in exchange for raw materials, closed borders, contracts to explore unexploited oil and gas fields. How long will it take, and how many lives lost to murderous borders or convenient dictators, before the hypocrisy of the EU will also be held accountable?
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ