The Power of Digital Reconstructions in Criminal Investigations
By Georgia Canura and Sóley Aspelund
Forensic Architecture is the intersection of art and science. It is a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, that innovatively investigates human rights violations. The agency investigates these sensitive cases by using spatial and architectural analysis, open source research, digital modelling and immersive technologies, documentary research, situated interviews, and academic collaboration. As a general rule, Forensic Architecture does not collaborate with or accept commissions from governments or militaries. Instead, they frequently collaborate with international human rights organisations, humanitarian legal organisations, and international courts such as the International Criminal Court. The broad range of potential partnerships provides the agency with a variety of cases to deconstruct. As a result, the agency will only conduct investigations involving human rights or environmental violations that necessitate a spatial or architectural analysis.
Furthermore, the findings of Forensic Architecture investigations are ultimately presented in a variety of environments and formats. The agency’s cases have been exhibited in international courts, legislatures, United Nations assemblies, lectures and seminars, art exhibitions, and other cultural institutions worldwide. It thus emphasises the connection between art and politics even further.
The case of Shirin Abu Akleh
Abu Akleh was reporting news on what seemed a usual Wednesday in Jenin, on the 11th of May 2022 she was struck by a bullet. The story reached international audience in almost no time since the killing, enraging thousands of policy-makers, activists, and citizens. Allegedly, the military reported that Israeli soldiers were searching for “terror suspects” in the Jenin refugee camp as well as other parts of the West Bank. As stated by the army, during the operation, terrorists fired shots and threw explosives against Israeli forces before the latter responded by firing back.
Abu Akleh was a 51-year-old Christian citizen of Jerusalem, a well-qualified journalist who endured reporting on one of the most polarizing confrontations in history. She became one of Al-original Jazeera’s field journalists a year after the channel’s founding and quickly established a name for her daring nature, sheer professionalism, and a strong dedication to telling the truth. Colleagues described her personality as “strong and calming.” Al-Jazeera, located in Doha, has long made reporting on the Israeli occupation, which is currently in its 55th year, a priority. Al-Jazeera has an English-language channel as well, which increases its global prominence in contrast to many other Arabic TV broadcasters.
The United States, the European Union, and the United Nations all criticized Shireen’s killing. Israel plainly desires a joint probe carried out by itself despite the fact that everyone has called for an impartial investigation. In order to undertake forensic testing and identify the gun that murdered Abu Akleh, Israel requested the bullet’s removal from her corpse from the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority conducted a memorial ceremony for her the day after she died, and President Mahmoud Abbas made an official appeal for the International Criminal Court to open an investigation. Interested in coining the truth and protecting human rights, Forensic Architecture was hired by Shireen’s family to independently work on the investigation of Shireen’s killing, using innovative methods such as the digital reconstruction of cases.
Evidence gathering: Digital reconstruction
Using citizen footage, Forensic Architecture digitally recreated the case of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder. The digital reconstruction required generating a 3D scene model, employing fieldwork notes, geolocation or location technologies like GPS or IP addresses to identify and monitor the positions of linked electronic devices, and image complexion, which is the ability to locate and display various photos and videos in 3D models of built-up settings. Furthermore, Forensic Architecture developed a synchronisation approach to connect the 3D model with the audio analysis. The aforestated relationship is critical in the last stage, recreation, where the agency may play back the events and comprehensively analyse the scenario from every viewpoint. The audio analysis, for example, allows the agency to investigate the distance and consistency of the bullets, and the 3D model demonstrates that the convoy at the Israeli Occupation Forces had a clear view of Shireen Abu Akleh’s reporter’s vest when he began shooting at her with a precise aim of killing.
The effective digital reconstruction of Shireen Abu Akleh’s case has demonstrated the need to remain innovative with new methods of investigation. That’s because modern conflicts and human rights breaches are progressively taking place in urban settings, such as residential communities. Given the nature of these urban conflicts, the distinction between civilians and combatants can be viewed as blurred. Simultaneously, similar areas have become increasingly media-rich, meaning human rights violations have never been as well documented. However, such circumstances can be complicated to comprehend and thus analyse. However, approaches such as architectural analysis and digital modelling enable us to untangle this complexity and provide evidence in a persuasive, precise, and accessible manner, which are critical qualities for holding accountability.
The International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over Palestine
The International Criminal Court has received a formal request from Al Jazeera Media Network to look into and prosecute those responsible for the death of Shireen. The International Criminal Court is a court of last resort that has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression, if national courts are unable or unwilling to do so.
In 2015, the State of Palestine acceded to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC, and deposited its instrument of accession with the United Nations Secretary-General. This means that the ICC has jurisdiction over the territory of Palestine, and the ICC prosecutor is able to initiate investigations and prosecute crimes that occur within the territory of Palestine or that are committed by Palestinian nationals. However, the ICC’s jurisdiction over Palestine is controversial and not universally recognized. The government of Israel does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction over its actions in Palestine, and the United States has also expressed opposition to the ICC’s efforts to investigate war crimes committed in Palestine.
In 2021, the ICC opened an investigation into the situation in Palestine. The investigation is looking into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The scope of the investigation includes alleged crimes committed by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities and individuals, including during the conflict in the Gaza Strip in 2014 and the settlements policy in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The ICC prosecutor has opened the preliminary examination into the situation in Palestine since 2015 , and in December 2019 the Pre-Trial Chamber I of the ICC authorized the opening of the investigation. The prosecutor has been gathering information, conducting investigations and assessing whether there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an official investigation. The investigation of Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing is a part of this large investigation, but it may very well take years to finalize the charges or individuals who will be targeted.
The successful digital recreation of Shireen Abu Akleh’s case has illustrated the importance of continuing to be innovative with fresh investigative techniques. That’s because contemporary conflicts and violations of human rights are increasingly occurring in urban contexts, like residential areas, and in complex circumstances, that can be impossible for the human eye to detect. The line between civilians and fighters might be blurred given the nature of these urban wars. With the importance of such innovative investigation techniques, it will be interesting to observe how the International Criminal Court’s investigators deal with Shireen Abu Akleh’s ongoing case.