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At Great Risk, Group Gathers Evidence Of War Crimes In Syria

William Wiley is a former Canadian army officer who has worked on international criminal law cases in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq.
Courtesy of William Wiley
William Wiley is a former Canadian army officer who has worked on international criminal law cases in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq.

Each week,Weekend Edition Sundayhost Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

William Wiley has made a career out of international criminal law, working on cases in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq. He now oversees a nonprofit called the Syrian Commission for Justice and Accountability (SCJA).

The group's men and women are charged with collecting evidence of atrocities in the Syrian war, evidence they hope will be used to prosecute war crimes carried out by both sides.

"There's no international body with jurisdiction over the crimes being perpetrated in Syria at the current time," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "The one advantage we have is that we can operate in the midst of the conflict, which a public body couldn't really do, for the simple reason that we have a much higher level of risk tolerance."

The SCJA uses different methods to suss out regime offenses and armed opposition offenses. At the regime level, "we're interested in quite high-level offenders," he says, "because criminal justice is a highly symbolic exercise."

It's a very committed group, it's very high-risk. I don't want to get all emotional, but certainly the courage of these men and women is to be applauded. There's no question about it.

They look for documentation and try to reconstruct chains of command to determine who's responsible. "We've removed about 300,000 pages from Syria at this point."

Moving paper around a war zone is difficult. "We acquire it, generally, in large collections ... through alliances with certain military groups on the opposition side," he says. Those groups capture a government facility, and then the SCJA goes in and secures the documentation.

It's dangerous work, and the SCJA has suffered losses. "Some of the men have been wounded, and one was wounded and captured. We believe he's dead," Wiley says. Still more SCJA workers have been captured, both by the regime and radical Islamists.

Wiley is closely watching the peace talks in the Geneva, where the idea of clemency for President Bashar Assad has been floated. "It would be very frustrating for perhaps all of our Syrian colleagues," he says.

But the SCJA's work won't go to waste. "We're also collecting with the idea that our database can be used to inform a broader truth-seeking, truth-telling process," something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. "All is not lost if there's no criminal prosecutions. Criminal prosecutions are a very, very small ... high profile part ... of the broader transitional justice process."

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