AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Eight years into his country's civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to cling to power. But what about the thousands of stories of kidnapping, torture and other crimes by the regime? Will those ever be investigated and prosecuted? These acts are well-documented, and NPR's Deborah Amos has seen those documents, stored in a secret location in Europe. She joins us now from New York to talk about how this evidence is being put to use. Welcome back, Deb.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Hi there.
CORNISH: We aren't going to say where these documents are being kept because there are people who would want them destroyed, right? But can you give us a sense of what this storage space is like?
AMOS: So this is the office of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability. There's no sign on the door. There's no website. But the staff, all of them, are experienced international war crimes investigators. Canadian Bill Wiley founded CIJA. It's funded by Western governments. His team builds cases based on official Syrian documents. They're kept in a locked fireproof vault.
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AMOS: And this is the evidence room.
BILL WILEY: So what you have in here is roughly 800,000 pages - original pages - of Syrian regime political, military and security intelligence documentation.
AMOS: Audie, there are 3.6 metric tons of paper in these vaults. Each page is scanned, given a barcode that has an evidence number.
CORNISH: Now, I know there's a network of people working on these cases, but how did they get all of this material?
AMOS: The documents have all been smuggled out of Syria over eight years of war. Wiley and his team started training Syrian activists in 2011. So whenever rebels ran over a town, these Syrian teams would go straight to the government buildings, and they'd scoop up official documents. It's very risky to get tons of paper out of Syria in the middle of a war. So a couple of them have been killed, some have been wounded doing this work.
CORNISH: How are the documents going to be used to help build a case against the regime?
AMOS: So the lawyers say that they aren't finding documents telling officers running prisons to explicitly torture. Officials don't put that in writing. The documents do show that the Assad regime issued orders to arrest people on an unprecedented scale to put down the uprising in 2011.
So what you see there are reports from prisons with details like the bodies are piling up or the corpses are not presentable to release to the families. Wiley says the documents show that the reports went all the way up the chain of command.
WILEY: You can't torture people and kill them in custody. It's illegal. It's illegal under Syria - forget international law. It's illegal under Syrian law. There's endless numbers of daily violations in security intelligence facilities of Syrian penal law by persons in the employ, on the payroll of the Syrian state.
AMOS: And that's the kind of evidence that you can use to show Syrian leaders are criminally responsible, especially when the documents show that the crimes of torture were unpunished.
CORNISH: And have they been used in courts yet?
AMOS: Yes. So the first time they were used was in Washington. And that was in the case brought by the relatives of journalist Marie Colvin. And the documents showed that she was targeted and killed by the Assad regime in 2012. Now, the documents are used in cases brought in national courts in Europe. And that's because cases are blocked at the International Criminal Court because supporters of Syria like the Russians, they can use their U.N. veto.
Now, in Germany and a handful of European countries, there's this legal procedure that allows prosecutions of war crimes committed anywhere. So there are 800,000 Syrians in Germany with stories of torture in jail. In February, Germany arrested a Syrian who'd come into the country as a refugee. And the documents show he ran a notorious prison. So I had this exchange with Bill Wiley.
WILEY: We received a routine request from the Germans just at the point we were finishing the dossier. So they got more than I think they had perhaps anticipated in a very short time.
AMOS: Is he a big fish?
WILEY: He's the biggest fish arrested in the West to this point - well, anywhere in the world to this point. He was a full colonel, head of interrogation and two security intelligence branches in Damascus, meaning he's responsible for the teams that interrogate the detainees and everything that goes with that in the Syrian context. And so yeah, he's a very big fish.
CORNISH: But he's one big fish. I mean, are there many more to come?
AMOS: You know, the odds of getting the very top people are slim. Germany and France issued international arrest warrants for top officials last year. But as long as they stay in Syria, they're immune from arrest. Wiley and his team have tracked about 15 regime officials who slipped into Europe with the refugees. They are more promising cases. But in the end, the prosecutors and the lawyers in Europe say it's important for Syrian witnesses to tell these stories in court to show the world what they've been through.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Deb Amos in New York. Deb, thanks so much.
AMOS: Thank you.
CORNISH: And you can hear more of Deb's reporting tomorrow on Morning Edition, where you can hear how one Syrian survivor is turning the tables on his torturers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.