Picture of video showing beheading of two people (LiveLeak)
Picture of video showing beheadings (LiveLeak)

Human Rights Watch has dismissed reports that three Franciscan friars were beheaded in Syria in a graphic video that emerged on YouTube this week. The findings by HRW back claims that the footage was used for propaganda by Bashar al-Assad's regime.

According to an in-depth investigation by the New York-based organisation, the footage was shot in April and shows the beheading of two people whom the people speaking in the video refer to as shabiha - collaborators with the Assad regime - in the village of Mashhad Ruhin 120km from Ghassaniyah.

The video was originally believed to show the execution of three Franciscan monks.

The killers are part of the al-Muhajireen al-Ansar brigade led by Chechen commander Abu Omar al-Shesheni, according to sources. "Several sources have identified the person who announces the verdict as a Dagestani individual going by the name of Abu al-Bannat," Peter N. Bouckaert, Emergencies Director of Human Rights Watch told IBTimes UK. "It is possible that a known Chechen commander, Abu Omar al-Shesheni, is also present in the video as part of the audience. He is the commander of the mostly foreign fighter brigade, al-Muhajireen al-Ansar."

The video was arbitrarily linked by Catholic Online to the death of Francois Murad, a 49-year-old Franciscan father.

But the Custody of the Holy Land denied that Murad was one of those in the video and confirmed that all other priests in the area were still alive.

According to reports by the Vatican, fighters loyal to the radical Jubhat al-Nusra front attacked the Convent of the Custody of the Holy Land in Ghassaniyah, in northern Syria, where Murad had taken refuge, and killed him on 23 June. But the circumstances of his death were not fully understood, according to the Vatican.

HRW conducted a topographic analysis of the ground in the film and facial recognition techniques on the victims and Murad.

"The topography and the buildings seen in the video closely match that of the village of Mashdad Ruhin, according to topographical analysis and sat imagery analysis we conducted," Bouckaert said. "There are many features in the video, such as the distinct square water tower, which exist in Mashdad Ruhin. The topography and buildings in Ghassaniyeh and its environs do not match the video. Further, the individuals in the video are wearing jackets and the vegetation is green, suggesting a Spring date."

"While the video only appeared recently, the incident of the beheadings by foreign fighters in the village of Mashdad Ruhin was described in the Arabic press in mid-April and closely matches what is seen in the video," he said.

In the video, according to the Huffington Post, it is possible to hear the militants speaking in Russian on two occasions. The executioners were identified as coming from Chechnya and Dagestan as part of a group of militants based in Mashhad Ruhin.

The two victims in the video were sentenced to death for arms trafficking and not because they were priests, according to the people speaking in the video.

Somatic comparison
Somatic comparison (HRW)

The video was "uploaded by al-Qaida to terrorise Christians," according to Andrea Avveduto of the Custody of the Holy Land. "The corpse of Murad was intact," Avveduto said.

The first user to upload the video on YouTube was SyriaTruth, a pro-Assad network that has been the mouthpiece for the Syrian regime in the last two years. However, Bouckaert said that the Assad propaganda connection "is pure speculation". "The video depicts a horrific crime, and those who committed it should be held accountable," he said.