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war crimes collecting evidence, Documenting Rwandan genocide weapons - Ron Haviv, VII
war crimes collecting evidence, Documenting Rwandan genocide weapons - Ron Haviv, VII

Various weapons are seen inside the Nyamata Mission Church in Nyamata, Rwanda, 2009. The church, now a memorial, was a massacre site where over 10,000 refugees were slaughtered during the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic fighting in April 1994. It is said only eight survived. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII


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Download: GIJN Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes

Investigating War Crimes: Collecting and Archiving Evidence and Information

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Editor’s Note: The end of this chapter features a special focus interview by Olivier Holmey with The Reckoning Project’s chief legal data archivist, Raji Abdul Salam, who has experience gathering evidence and testimony for use in war crimes trials in Syria, Iraq, and, now, Ukraine.

Strong evidence, whether physical or digital, is the foundation of any investigation. Securing robust evidence may be the most daunting of many challenges, but it’s what distinguishes investigative journalism from news coverage or enterprise stories.

Evidence comes in many forms: from interviewing sources and witnesses and corroborating information; from physical documents such as court records, company incorporation documents, and identification; and in digital form, such as databases of leaked documents, screenshots of conversations, audio recordings of testimonies, or video clips.

Without evidence, investigative journalists would be easily challenged and discredited in the public sphere, on social media, and in the courts.

Obtaining evidence is not the same as publishing evidence. On some occasions, journalists refer to evidence without actually publishing it, for instance to protect sources or to disclose information not covered in their investigation. On others, journalists may be authorized to publish all or parts of the evidence they have.

There are numerous ways to obtain evidence. The simplest is open source research, such as gathering information from social media and online databases. There are many resources and websites that can help journalists obtain information that can reveal connections between individuals, company ownership, properties, yachts, or geolocation — simply by registering, or for a small fee. Among them: Sayari, ICIJ, GIJN, and OCCRP.

Other types of evidence are exclusive, for instance when sources leak paper or digital documents. There are various ways to share sensitive documents, such as a secure submission system such as SecureDrop, encrypted messaging apps such as Signal, encrypted email services such as Proton, or even by traditional mail.

The next stage of collecting evidence is to share it securely with a close network of reporters working on the story. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has mastered the collection, filtering, and sharing of millions of records with a large number of journalists. One of its recent investigations, the Pandora Papers, was one of the largest journalism collaboration projects to date and involved sharing millions of documents — on an encrypted platform — among more than 600 reporters in 117 countries and territories, so that local journalists could make the best use of the data, which provided strong evidence of how world leaders have used offshore jurisdictions to hide their money.

After sharing information, journalists need to find ways to effectively analyze and filter data, especially if there is a lot of it. Google’s free tool, Pinpoint, uses artificial intelligence to help journalists organize and manage massive troves of data by identifying named people, organizations, and places appearing in uploaded documents, including transcripts of audio and video files. Other tools include Excel sheets, Datawrapper, OpenRefine, and Linkurious.

After publishing the investigation, the next step is to archive and store the evidence, perhaps in a safe, secret place, somewhere accessible only to fellow journalists, or even publicly on an open platform. For example, the C4ADS Dubai Property Database — maintained by the US nonprofit Center For Advanced Defense Studies (which is funded in part by US government grants) — collects data on property ownership to show how illicit networks, transnational criminals, kleptocrats, oligarchs, and others exploit the UAE property market.

Journalists must often grapple with questions about the reliability of their information, including queries from their editors. Legal departments will ask journalists to provide evidence to support a published story if it has come under scrutiny.

war crimes collecting evidence, Blood stains on wall, Tripoli, Libya, 2011

Blood stains the walls of a hospital in Tripoli, Libya, where numerous bodies were found abandoned after what appeared to be execution-style killings during the Arab Spring uprising, 2011. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII

At times, journalists might receive a new tip or information, or hear from a whistleblower offering new information that sheds light on previously reported issues in the same investigation. Keeping everything in an organized, safe, and encrypted location is important for an investigation’s credibility. Having everything in one place also helps journalists work out new elements to investigate, and whether it’s worth the time and effort.

Bellingcat shares information on ways to archive digital evidence, such as working with Mnemonic, an NGO “dedicated to archiving, investigating and memorializing digital information documenting human rights violations and international crimes.” Mnemonic collaborates with Bellingcat and the Global Legal Action Network to preserve an evidence database of airstrikes in Yemen and document civilian casualties; a similar project for a digital archive to document atrocities in Ukraine is being developed. The nonprofit Yemen Data Project also collects and disseminates data on airstrikes and conduct in Yemen’s civil war.

Journalists have relied on the Wayback Machine, maintained by the nonprofit digital library Internet Archive, to find archived pages and websites from websites that might have gone offline. The Wayback Machine preserves the content of many websites after they’ve been deleted or have disappeared from the internet.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that it is not a newsroom or journalist’s job to present evidence to a legal proceeding or collaborate with a prosecution of alleged war crimes. This comes down to each individual’s personal ethics. Some choose to work with these authorities, but others do not.

Special Focus: Gathering Court-Admissible Evidence of War Crimes

Interview of Raji Abdul Salam, by Olivier Holmey

Raji Abdul Salam is the chief legal data analyst with The Reckoning Project, a team of multimedia journalists, documentary filmmakers, academics, lawyers, and researchers documenting war crimes in Ukraine. Abdul Salam has experience documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria and Iraq, including for prosecutions of war criminals under universal jurisdiction in Germany, Sweden, and Belgium.

war crimes Ukraine evidence

Raji Abdul Salam, chief legal data archivist at The Reckoning Project. Image: Screenshot, The Reckoning Project

He tells GIJN that collecting and preparing evidence for potential use in a criminal prosecution requires implementing an exceptionally rigorous methodology.

One must first make sure that each witness is both physically and mentally fit to give evidence, Salam says. To that end, interviewers must receive extensive training on how to recognize and handle trauma.

Once it is established that interviews can proceed, the interviewer must avoid asking leading questions. “We just ask what happened,” he explains.

It’s also imperative that interviewees are not merely repeating a memorized account. Journalists must ensure that outside sources — media reports or therapy sessions, for example — have not tainted the testimony, by introducing new elements beyond what the subjects have witnessed. “The verification process is a headache because of all of these contamination elements, but you have to do your work,” Abdul Salam says.

The interviews are transcribed in three stages.

First, write down everything that the witness has said, even elements that might seem fantastical or out of chronological order.

Then, create an empirical statement, now in chronological order, that excludes anything superfluous. “That means it only has the facts,” Abdul Salam says. “I was detained at this time; my hands were tied at this time; they beat me at this time; I got released at this time; they shot me at this time; I saw them shooting someone at this time. Fact, fact, fact.”

war crimes, collecting evidence The remains of identity cards of Kosovar Albanians from a refugee convoy that was attacked by Serb forces in Meja, Kosovo, June 15, 1999

The remains of identity cards of Kosovar Albanians from a refugee convoy that was attacked by Serb forces in Meja, Kosovo, 1999. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII

Finally, compare that testimony to all the others that have been gathered, as well as to material evidence. That determines which elements can and cannot be relied upon.

“Everything has to be coherent,” Abdul Salam emphasizes. “Coherency helps you ensure that you always have a solid statement. Because don’t forget: these people have to go before the court. Anything that does not make sense weakens the witness so they get dismissed.”

Once each statement has been fully prepared, witnesses sign a consent form, which allows The Reckoning Project to hold the information it has collected and to use it in specific ways, including for publication and for transmission to public prosecutors. “The consent letter is a form of legal protection for witnesses, but is not legally binding on them,” Abdul Salam says. “That means the witness has his or her right at any point not to testify.”

But witness statements are insufficient to prove a war crime, he cautions. “For a successful case, to start it you need a human testimony… but to end it, you need strong supporting evidence.”

To be admissible in court, videos, photos, documents, and other forms of supporting evidence have to be verified — an onerous process — and their journey from production to collection — their “chain of custody” – has to be carefully recorded.

He recommends implementing the Berkeley Protocol for open source investigations when collecting digital evidence of mass crimes. “It’s a long process, it’s not easy at all,” he warns.

Once the information has been collected, data analysis programs such as ATLAS.ti or Excel can help establish patterns of behavior. To prove war crimes or crimes against humanity, hundreds of consistent pieces of evidence are necessary, so these types of tools help sift through the mass of data to establish that attacks are methodical and systematic, he says.

When it comes to sharing one’s findings with the justice system, Abdul Salam says one should bear in mind how overworked prosecutors are. “They are already inundated by the number and complexity of crimes they are investigating,” he explains. For that reason, it is important to submit concise statements that clearly lay out the testimonies gathered, the supporting evidence, the patterns detected, the methodology used, and the relevant legal arguments. Prosecutors are far more likely to pay attention to such a digestible, well-crafted file. “If you send them a document that is weak, they will not trust you next time,” he says. “You build trust with them case after case after case.”

But however hard one works, courts could always reach a different conclusion. “We are not the judges, we are not the prosecutors, we are just aiding justice,” he reminds reporters. “If they have a different argument or different verdict, we have to respect it.”

Additional Resources

Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes: Open Source Research

Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes: Attacks on Civilians

Reporter’s Guide to Investigating War Crimes: Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

Maggie Michael, ICIJMaggie Michael is an investigative journalist at Reuters who previously reported for ICIJ out of Cairo, Egypt, from 2021 until February, 2023. She has more than 15 years of experience covering conflicts across the Middle East, and has gained deep knowledge of its political, social, and cultural dynamics. In 2019, she was part of an Associated Press team that won many international awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, Michael Kelly Award, IRE, and McGill Medal for Courage for groundbreaking investigations of corruption, torture, and other war crimes in Yemen, a country plagued by protracted civil war.

Ron Haviv, VII FoundationRon Haviv is a director and co-founder of The VII Foundation and co-founder of VII Photo Agency. In the last three decades, Haviv has covered more than 25 conflicts and worked in over 100 countries. His work, which has won numerous awards, is featured in museums and galleries worldwide.

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