Top Syrian officials on UN list of criminal suspects

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The United Nations has compiled a secret list of top Syrian officials who could face investigation for crimes against humanity carried out by security forces in their crackdown against an anti-government uprising.

Officials yesterday indicated the list goes as high as President Bashar Assad who has remained resolute in his determination to crush the uprising despite the rising numbers of civilian casualties.

Thousands of Syrians have died in the violence since March and the panel, citing what it called a reliable source, said at least 500 children are among the dead.

“A reliable body of evidence exists that, consistent with other verified circumstances, provides reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers and officials at the highest levels of government, bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations,” said the report by the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

It added: “The commission has deposited with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights a sealed envelope containing the names of these people, which might assist future credible investigations by competent authorities.”

It does not say who these investigating authorities might be, but the UN’s top human rights official has previously called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Members of the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council are expected to hold a special meeting on Syria in Geneva next week, at which the panel’s report will be presented.

The panel, led by Brazilian professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said its list also identifies some armed opposition cells thought to have committed gross abuses.

International pressure has been building on Assad’s government to halt its violent suppression of the opposition. Earlier this week the International Committee of the Red Cross called for temporary ceasefires so it could reach those trapped and wounded in the worst-affected areas.

But human rights groups say the violence is only increasing, with dozens dying every day from government shelling of cities like the rebel stronghold of Homs

The UN panel was denied entry to Syria by the government and instead gathered much of its information from sources outside the country, including human rights activists and Syrian army defectors.

Its report claims the ruling Baath Party’s National Security Bureau was responsible for translating government policies into military operations that led to the systematic arrest or killing of civilians.

It says the four main intelligence and security agencies reporting directly to Assad – Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, the General Intelligence Directorate and the Political Security Directorate – “were at the heart of almost all operations”.

The report details how businessmen helped hire and arm informal pro-government militias known as the Shabbiha and identifies 38 detention centres “for which the commission documented cases of torture and ill-treatment since March 2011”.

Armed opposition groups, loosely connected under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, also committed some gross human rights abuses, the panel said, citing the torture and execution of soldiers or suspected pro-government militia members, but added such actions were “not comparable in scale and organisation with those carried out by the state”.

News of the report’s findings came as warnings from Syrian activists of a humanitarian catastrophe in Homs grew more desperate as government forces resumed their shelling of an opposition stronghold.

Homs-based activist Omar Shaker said intense barrages hit residential districts in Baba Amr again on Thursday.

“Every minute counts. People will soon start to collapse from lack of sleep and shortages in food,” he said.

On Wednesday, shelling of Baba Amr killed American-born veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik who were among a group of journalists who had crossed into Syria illegally and were sharing accommodation with activists.

A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman offered condolences to the families of Ms Colvin and Mr Ochlik but rejected any responsibility for their deaths. The spokesman urged foreign journalists to respect Syrian laws and not to enter the country