By Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Members of the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday viewed graphic pictures taken in Syria by a former military police photographer that showed what appeared to be evidence of brutal torture, including eye gougings, strangulation and long-term starvation.
The informal council meeting was organized by France to give the 15 member states a chance to see some of the 55,000 photographs that former war crimes prosecutors have described as "clear evidence" of systematic torture and mass killings in Syria's three-year-long civil war.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters after the closed-door session it was important for the Security Council to see such horrific images as his delegation prepares a resolution that would refer the Syrian conflict to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes indictments.
"The council fell into silence after we displayed the images," Araud said. "Members were truly moved."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power expressed a sense of horror after attending the informal council meeting.
"The gruesome images of corpses bearing marks of starvation, strangulation and beatings and today's chilling briefing indicate that the Assad regime has carried out systematic, widespread and industrial killing," she said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"The perpetrators of these monstrous crimes must be held accountable, and the international community must unite in the face of such horrors," she said.
Assad's ally Russia sent a representative to the meeting, though one council diplomat present said he was a legal counselor and not Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Most missions sent ambassadors to the meeting, the diplomat said.
Syracuse University law professor David Crane, who was chief prosecutor at the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal that indicted former President Charles Taylor of Liberia, compared the treatment of the victims to what was done to inmates of Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz.
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Stuart Hamilton, a forensic pathologist, said the former Syrian military photographer, identified by the code name "Caesar," smuggled the photos out of Syria between 2011 and mid-2013. Some 5,500 photos of 1,300 people were examined by the team of investigators.
"I'm content that they have not been digitally altered," Hamilton said. He displayed photos of corpses with distinctive patterned bruises on their necks that he eventually identified to have come from strangulation with an auto timing belt.
The images Caesar took were passed to the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Lawyers acting for Qatar from the London-based Carter-Ruck commissioned the examination of the evidence.
Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, is strongly opposed to Assad and is supporting rebel groups in the conflict.
While Caesar's photos would appear to offer evidence of war crimes by the Syrian government, Araud and Crane said that crimes had also been committed by opposition forces, though their actions were not documented by Caesar.
"All sides are committing international crimes," Crane said. "We're well beyond a good-guy, bad-guy scenario here. We just have human beings killing human beings at a scale that has not been seen since Rwanda."
Araud said the Russian delegate who attended asked a number of questions which Crane described as excellent, similar to what would likely be asked during a legal proceeding.
Crane added that Caesar's evidence was of very high quality.
"The photographs, the witness himself, are credible and sustainable in a court of law at the international or domestic level," he said.
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The French ambassador was asked why he was preparing to urge the Security Council to refer the case of Syria to the ICC when Moscow has made clear it would veto any attempt to do so.
Russia, supported by China, has vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned Assad's government, threatened sanctions and called for accountability for any war crimes.
"When you're a diplomat, you need to be hopeful," he said, adding that he was not going to demand a quick vote on the issue. "We are going to try to convince our Russian friends and the other members of the Security Council that it's a fair solution to a real problem."
"But I say to my 14 colleagues ... after the decision you make (on ICC referral), you will have to look yourselves in the mirror, look at yourselves and you will have to tell yourselves 'What did I do when it was the time?'," Araud said.
U.N. investigators have said the government has been responsible for most of the war crimes, though the opposition has committed them as well on a smaller scale. Western officials say Islamist extremists are responsible for war crimes committed on the side of the rebels.
Caesar was a senior sergeant in Syria's Army who spent 13 years working as a forensic photographer, Crane said.
Between September 2011 and August 2013, he worked at a military hospital, taking photos of bodies from three detention centers in the Damascus area. He smuggled copies of those photos out of the hospital on memory sticks hidden in his shoe.
"Caesar became a spy," said Crane. "The extraction of Caesar out of Syria is a Hollywood movie someday. It's a fascinating cover plan they put together (to get Caesar out of Syria)."
"They killed him and they told his family they killed him and they had a funeral while he's being extracted. Then the family was exfiltrated out and reunited with Caesar," he said. "Caesar's a hero."
(Writing by Louis Charbonneau)