Activists Build Human Rights Abuse Cases With Help From Cellphone Videos | KERA News

Activists Build Human Rights Abuse Cases With Help From Cellphone Videos

May 31, 2017
Originally published on July 11, 2017 1:42 pm

The war in Syria is a conflict of the social media age. Everyone — the rebels, the government, ordinary citizens, everyone — has a cellphone.

And that means almost no bad deed goes unrecorded by someone.

A Syrian-born human rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., is collecting those videos, hoping someday they will be used to build criminal cases against the perpetrators of the violence.

But he also faces a major problem: The volume of videos is staggering.

"We have 600,000 videos, and we're in the process of downloading almost 2,000 videos a day," says Mohammad Al Abdallah, executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, a nonprofit supported by the State Department and a handful of European governments.

I ask Abdallah how the videos would be used as evidence in a courtroom, and he calls up an example on his computer screen.

"I'll show you this one," he says. "It's a bit graphic. It's a very bloody video."

The video, from 2012, was apparently taken with a cellphone. It shows men in a room beating five civilians. Abdallah says they are hospital workers.

One of the men who seems to be in charge yells at and taunts the victims, and cheers when the attacks are especially vicious.

The victims, barely moving, huddle in obvious agony on the floor of the room. There's blood splattered on the wall.

But it's not only the brutality that makes the images captured in this video important to a lawyer. It's what else is in it.

The perpetrators turned the camera on themselves. They're apparently Syrian government agents. They even say their names.

Abdallah's organization, with a staff of 22, maintains a database of these thousands of videos to document the abuses. Analysts spend hours adding tags that identify what is in each video, so they can more easily search the database.

Tags might be straightforward, such as the date the video was made or the location where it was recorded. But some require human judgment. For example, if the video shows a weapon used in an attack, what kind of weapon is it? Is it an explosive, a mortar, a handgun, a baton? The tags have to make searching valuable.

But the volume of videos Abdallah and his analysts are trying to process threatens to overwhelm them.

"We envision ending up with a million-plus videos," says Abdallah. And that's just by the end of this year. Going through all of them and cataloging their contents in detail is both crucial — and impossible.

"We're not going to be able to do this," says Abdallah. "We need help."

The good news: Help may be coming.

"What we're trying to do is create tools that allow the human rights community to gather as much information as possible," says Jay Aronson, the founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

But the tools his center is creating will not just gather information. They'll also allow these organizations to "process and analyze it in a way that would have never been possible by hand, manually," he says.

Aronson says his computer science colleagues have developed technology that allows you to rapidly go through an entire collection of video and find clips that contain, say, images of an ambulance or a helicopter. That's useful because helicopters are often used to drop makeshift bombs.

This should help automate the process of tagging videos, taking some of the burden off human analysts.

But Aronson admits computers have trouble with context. Is the helicopter delivering supplies or dropping a bomb? Is the ambulance coming in response to a brutal beating — or a heart attack?

"There's no magic computer program that you can program and say, 'Hey, computer, find me barrel bombings or find me instances of torture,' and then have it go through all of the sources and just find those things," he says.

Aronson says it will take human analysts to do that.

But the tools Aronson and his colleagues are developing should make it easier to find videos that are related to one another, Abdallah says. And that's essential for amassing the evidence that will be needed in future criminal trials.

He calls up another video with a gruesome scene.

"It's five dead bodies, burned and thrown in the street, in Damascus suburbs," he says.

And it turns out this video shows the same men who were being brutally beaten in the first video Abdallah showed me. He says you can tell that because it was taken the same day as the other video, and the victims are wearing the same clothes.

"He is wearing a blue pajama, blue, with three stripes, and he's the exact same person as we see here," says Abdallah, indicating the first video.

These videos came in from different sources, and taken together, they help provide a fuller picture of what happened. Abdallah says he's confident that computers will help make more connections so he can build strong legal cases against the perpetrators of the horrors that are part of daily life in Syria.

"I think technology is gonna be the judge in this conflict," he says.

There's one problem technology can't solve: Right now, there's virtually no legal mechanism to prosecute anyone for what's going on in Syria.

But this evidence isn't going away. It will stay in databases like the one Abdallah's organization runs. And he hopes the time will come when the world will insist on some kind of accounting for the crimes for which he's gathered evidence.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The war in Syria is a conflict of the social media age. Cellphones are ubiquitous among the rebels, the government, even ordinary citizens. And that means almost no bad deed goes unrecorded. As NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca reports, there's an organization using all those videos to build criminal cases against the perpetrators.

A warning, some of the sounds and descriptions in this story are disturbing.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The volume of videos is staggering.

MOHAMMAD AL ABDALLAH: We're in the process of downloading almost 2,000 videos a day.

PALCA: Mohammad Al Abdallah is executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre in Washington, D.C. The center is a nonprofit supported by the U.S. State Department and a handful of European governments. Abdallah was born in Syria but moved to the United States in 2009. He's a human rights lawyer determined to seek justice for innocent Syrians who have suffered and died as a result of the violence that's gripped their country.

I asked Abdallah how the videos would be used as evidence in a courtroom. And he calls up an example on his computer screen.

AL ABDALLAH: I'll show you this one. It's a bit graphic. It's a very bloody video.

PALCA: The video was apparently taken with a cellphone. It shows men in a room beating five civilians, who Abdallah says worked in a hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

PALCA: One of the men, who seems to be in charge, yells taunts at the victims and cheers when the attacks are especially vicious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

PALCA: "Make sure you're getting this," he yells to the man with the camera. The victims, barely moving, huddle in obvious agony on the floor of the room. But it's not only the brutality and the graphic images that make this video important to a lawyer. It's what else is on it. The perpetrators turn the cameras on themselves and they're apparently Syrian government agents.

AL ABDALLAH: Naming each other and inviting each other to participate in the torture campaign.

PALCA: Abdallah's organization maintains a database of these videos to document the abuses. And their analysts spend hours adding identifying tags to each video so they can more easily search the database. For example, if the video shows an attack, what kind of attack is it? Is there a weapon?

AL ABDALLAH: Is it explosive? Is it nontraditional? Is it (unintelligible) aircraft, car bomb, landmine?

PALCA: Who's in the video? Where was the video taken? Things like that. But the volume of videos Abdallah and his analysts are trying to process threatens to overwhelm them.

AL ABDALLAH: We envision ending up with a million-plus videos.

PALCA: Going through all of them and cataloguing in detail their contents is both crucial and impossible.

AL ABDALLAH: We're not going to be able to do this. We need help.

PALCA: And help may be coming. Jay Aronson is founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

JAY ARONSON: What we're trying to do is create tools that allow the human rights community to gather as much information as possible and process and analyze it in a way that never would have been possible by hand manually.

PALCA: For example...

ARONSON: We have technology that allows you to rapidly go through that entire collection of video.

PALCA: And find specific things like, say, a clip with a helicopter in it. That's useful because helicopters are often used to drop makeshift bombs on civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

PALCA: Or you can build software that can find video clips that have an ambulance in them.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULENCE SIREN)

PALCA: This should help automate the process of tagging videos, taking some of the burden off human reviewers. But Aronson admits computers have trouble with context. Is the helicopter delivering supplies or dropping a bomb? Is the ambulance coming in response to a brutal beating or someone having a heart attack?

ARONSON: There's no magic computer program that you can program and say, hey, computer, find me barrel bombings or find me instances of torture and then have it go through all of the sources and just find those things.

PALCA: Aronson says it will take people to do that. But human rights lawyer Mohammad Al Abdallah says the tools Aronson and his colleagues are developing should make it easier to find videos that are related to one another. And that's essential for amassing the evidence that will be needed in a criminal trial. He calls up another video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

PALCA: This young man is describing the discovery of several badly disfigured bodies.

AL ABDALLAH: It's six dead bodies or five dead bodies burnt and thrown in the street, in Damascus suburbs - city called Atel (ph).

PALCA: And it turns out these are the same men I saw being brutally beaten in that first video Abdallah showed me. He says you can tell that because it was taken the same day as the other video and the victims are wearing the same clothes.

AL ABDALLAH: He is wearing a pajama - blue with three stripes and white. And he's the exact same person that appeared here.

PALCA: Abdallah says these videos came in from different sources. But taken together, they provide a more complete picture of what happened. And he's confident he'll be able to connect more videos and build more strong legal cases with the help of computer science.

AL ABDALLAH: I think technology is going to be the judge in this conflict.

PALCA: There's one problem technology can't solve. Right now there's virtually no legal mechanism to prosecute anyone for what's going on in Syria. But this evidence isn't going away. And Abdallah hopes the time will come when the world will insist that there be some kind of accounting for these crimes. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.