GENEVA (Reuters) - A Canadian ex-soldier who once advised the defense in the trial of Saddam Hussein is leading an effort to prepare prosecution-ready dossiers of evidence against individuals responsible for crimes in Syria's war. But so far, no court will hear the case.
William Wiley leads the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), a team funded by the United States and a handful of European governments. CIJA has been quietly building three cases against a range of Syrian government officials.
"We believe that by the end of this year those three cases will be as good as any cases we've ever done in our careers because of the strength of the documentation," said Wiley, 50, a veteran of the Rwanda and Yugoslavia war crimes tribunals.
By working with Syria's armed opposition - everyone "up to but excluding Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State", the two main hardline Islamist insurgent groups - CIJA has pieced the evidence together from a trove of 500,000 pages of documents and information gleaned from defectors and prisoners.
The three cases target Syria's war cabinet, National Security Bureau that coordinates the country's security agencies, and the Security Committee of Deir al-Zor province, based on "a very large collection" of captured documents.
"We have a very strong document collection that tells us how the National Security Bureau works, and it goes straight up to the president," Wiley said in an interview.
The next case will focus on the conduct of hostilities by Syria's high command, including the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombings and indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.
When choosing targets, "we think in terms of what would bring most bang for the buck for transitional justice", he said.
"If you want to get a true benefit in signaling that the rule of law exists then the process has to be fair, even for a guy as heinous as Saddam," he said. "If you don't have that you're not going to achieve the aim of the process, which is not to punish but to show that there's no impunity."
Whether the cases will ever be heard is, however, a question that diplomats have wrangled with during the three years of Syria's war, since no court is willing to hear the evidence, and the path to the International Criminal Court is blocked by Russian and Chinese veto power at the United Nations.
But human rights activists say it is worth being patient, since justice often catches up with wrongdoers even though it often takes decades.
CIJA's forensic focus aims to ensure the prosecution case is ready to go as soon as there is a court available, which Wiley said sets it apart from other entities that are documenting Syrian crimes, such as a U.N. commission of inquiry.
"What they don't do is establish individual criminal liability. That's what makes the CIJA model unique," he said.
Stephen Rapp, the U.S. Ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, said CIJA's approach was new because in the past atrocities had been documented in "narrative" reports that were hard to turn into watertight prosecutions later.
At previous tribunals, such as those for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the challenge had been to prove the connection between senior leaders and atrocities on the ground, he said.
"It's not dissimilar to the problem we face at the national level: when you look at organized crime, you can get the thug on the street or the person that's engaged in extortion or dealing in contraband or illegal goods. But getting people behind the scenes that are actually profiting from it is the challenge.
"That's why the work that Bill is doing, informed by the work of the tribunals, is so important," Rapp said. "It's that area where cases most often fail."
Editing by Mark Heinrich