Unimaginable Horrors: The War-Crimes Lawyer Hunting Bashar Assad

(Der Spiegel | June 6, 2016) Is it allowable to kill Bashar al-Assad? “It is,” says university professor David Crane, “under certain circumstances.” He asks the question to one of his students during a lecture, then answers it immediately himself, without any discernable emotion.

At such times, the friendly professor turns into a fierce lawyer, unafraid of travelling to the world’s more uncomfortable places.

Crane was once a chief prosecutor for the United Nations, but these days, he is a professor at Syracuse University’s College of Law in the state of New York. As a lawyer, when he sees Assad, he doesn’t see a monster, he sees a case. And it’s a case that he wants to bring before a court.

Syracuse is a city of 145,000 inhabitants in the so-called Rust Belt, an industrial region approximately four hours by car from New York City. The University of Syracuse has a good reputation, especially when it comes to law.

It is here where Crane, shortly after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, established a kind of student public prosecutor’s office. Together with their professors, students are preparing for the day when Assad’s war crimes will hopefully be tried before an international court. They call it the Syrian Accountability Project.

Crane’s appearance is unremarkable, with a light-colored shirt, gray wool trousers and dark glasses. But he comes alive when he talks about what drives him: the opportunity to use legal powers to confront unimaginable horrors.

At such times, the friendly professor turns into a fierce lawyer, unafraid of travelling to the world’s more uncomfortable places. It was Crane who, in 2003, indicted one of Africa’s most powerful dictators, Charles Taylor, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 2012, Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in jail. Liberia’s former president is being held responsible for the death of over 100,000 people and is currently being kept in an English prison, which he will likely never leave.

Detailed Tally

Crane and his students hope that either the United Nations or post-war Syria decide one day to establish a special tribunal to prosecute the conflict’s war criminals. Indeed, they are collecting evidence as if such a court already existed, comparing sources from around the world, checking eyewitness reports and communicating with human rights organizations. They comb through government reports and media articles as completely and thoroughly as possible. They are keeping precise records of this war, documenting every day, thus creating the world’s most complete matrix of war crimes in Syria. It is an index of horrors, up-to-date versions of which Crane regularly sends to the UN and the International Criminal Court.

The young people staying up all night to do this are doctoral candidates, like Molly White, 24, from Michigan. Even as a child, she was fascinated by serial killers and the fragility of civilization. With the Syrian Accountability Project, she is motivated by the idea of working on something that “will change the world,” instead of ending up in the trash can …

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