At least one Western government is bankrolling a project to gather evidence that could be used to indict Syrian President Bashar Assad at an international tribunal over his crackdown on the country's democracy movement, said a jurist leading the effort and a diplomat whose government is sponsoring it.
The fact-finding mission mostly involves assembling testimony from Syrian refugees that conforms to standards of international law necessary to sustain a war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
The ICC, which answers to the U.N. Security Council, recently indicted Moammar Kadafi and his sons on charges related to their violent suppression of the rebellion in Libya.
The Western official stressed that no decision had been made among diplomats to press the Security Council to refer Assad and his family to the court.
As part of the effort, international legal experts also held a workshop in Turkey last month to train Syrian activists in how to document alleged crimes against humanity, said Nabil Halaby, a Lebanese-based human rights lawyer who is part of the project. A report detailing the unnamed group's findings is scheduled to be released to governments, human rights groups and the media by the end of the month.
"We have interviewed Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and northern Lebanon and have also met with Syrian activists," Halaby, who identified his backers as unspecified foreign governments, told the Times on Tuesday.
"The witnesses testified to being victims of crimes against humanity," Halaby said. "For example, arbitrary kidnapping, arrest without warrants, unlawful killing, torture, torture until death, tanks in neighborhoods."
An ICC indictment would add to the Syrian regime's growing isolation. Over the last week, the Security Council, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council all issued statements condemning the crackdown. Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies pulled their ambassadors from Syria.
And the foreign minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davotoglu, met Assad in Damascus on Tuesday to deliver an ultimatum to the regime that could be a prelude to pulling its envoy from the country. That could deliver even more of a blow than the Arab withdrawals.
"Turkey has had far better relations with Damascus than most Arab governments," said Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs at Tufts University and the author of several books on the Middle East and South Asia.
"Turkey is a big army and a big economy next door. It has a stick to carry with the Syrians. Most Arab governments at best have a checkbook influence on Syria."
Some current and former Western officials have already publicly stated they believed the violence in Syria had risen to the level where Assad could be prosecuted in The Hague, the Dutch city that hosts the ICC. British Defense Minister Nick Harvey told lawmakers in May that the court was "highly likely to arrive at a similar conclusion" in Assad's case to the one it reached in the case of Kadafi.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher called on the Security Council in June to authorize the ICC to investigate Assad on charges of crimes against humanity. "The charge: using lethal violence to repress peaceful demonstrations in support of democratic rule," they wrote in a piece published by the Financial Times.
Syrians welcomed what appeared to be a decisive turn against the regime by the international community, especially Saudi King Abdullah's demand for the end of the "killing machine" targeting civilians. Syria, a strategic partner of Iran, and Saudi Arabia, which is close to the West, have long competed over influence in the region.
"What Saudi Arabia has done is open a new and blank page with the Syrian people," said Kassem a 23-year-old Damascus university student who asked that his last name not be published. "After all of its financial support to the regime, which certainly prolonged the regime's life, Saudi Arabia is finally saying it is with the Syrian people."
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