Syria crimes evidence 'indicates' Assad role: UN

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Fox News channel, in Damascus, Syria, in this file photo released by Syrian official news agency Sana on Sept 19, 2013. A growing body of evidence collected by United Nations (UN) inv
Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Fox News channel, in Damascus, Syria, in this file photo released by Syrian official news agency Sana on Sept 19, 2013. A growing body of evidence collected by United Nations (UN) investigators points to the involvement of senior Syrian officials, including Mr Assad, in crimes against humanity and war crimes, the UN's top human rights official said on Dec 2, 2013. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

GENEVA (AP, REUTERS) - A growing body of evidence collected by United Nations (UN) investigators points to the involvement of senior Syrian officials, including President Bashar Assad, in crimes against humanity and war crimes, the UN's top human rights official said on Monday.

Ms Navi Pillay, who heads the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the scale and viciousness of the abuses being perpetrated by both sides almost defies belief, and is being well documented by an expert UN panel of investigators.

"They've produced massive evidence," she told a news conference. "They point to the fact that the evidence indicates responsibility at the highest level of government, including the head of state." But Ms Pillay said the lists of suspected criminals are handed to her on a confidential basis and will remain sealed until requested by international or national authorities for a "credible investigation", and then possibly used for prosecution.

The UN investigators, who collect testimony in utmost secrecy and independently from Ms Pillay, have previously said the evidence points to the highest levels of Syria's government, but have not named Mr Assad or any other officials publicly.

Led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, they have compiled secret lists of suspects and handed them to Ms Pillay for safe storage, in hope that one day suspects will face trial for violations including torture and mass killings.

Ms Pillay said she worries about striking the right balance in determining how long to keep the information secret. The lists "rightly belongs to the people who suffered violations," she said, but they also must be kept sealed "to preserve the presumption of innocence" until proper judicial probes can be done that could lead to trial.

Ms Pillay said Syria and North Korea - the two countries being probed by a UN investigative panel - represent two of the world's worst human rights violations, but she also cited concerns with Central African Republic, Bangladesh and other regions.

Other places that require the world's attention, she said, are the large-scale expulsions of migrants from Saudi Arabia, the high number of migrant labourer deaths building World Cup stadiums in Qatar, and continuing political exploitation of xenophobia and racism in Europe and other developed regions.

Ms Pillay and Mr Pinheiro have repeatedly called for Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a move that could lead to the prosecution of suspects on the secret list. Western countries that want Mr Assad to step down should either stop dreaming or forget attending peace talks in January, the Syrian government said last Wednesday.

But Ms Pillay, a former judge at the ICC, said perpetrators of crimes must face justice.